New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Ben Howard

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
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Critical Review by Ben Howard

SOURCE: "World and Spirit, Body and Soul," in Poetry, Vol. 158, No. 6, September, 1991, pp. 342-43.

In the following review of House of Light, Howard finds that Oliver's poems "evoke the fears, sorrows, and joys of the solitary spirit."

Mary Oliver's purpose is as rare as her austere, insistent voice. In Dream Work Oliver portrayed herself as the humble celebrant of natural enigmas, "learning / little by little to love / our only world." In the present collection, her eighth, she reaffirms that purpose, declaring flatly that there is "only one question: how to love this world." By turns retiring or demanding, self-effacing or peremptory, these new poems honor the otherness of the natural world, even as they contemplate "the white fire of a great mystery." Placing the self in the stream of natural change, these quiet but forceful poems evoke the fears, sorrows, and joys of the solitary spirit. At their most exuberant, they celebrate the spirit's light, whether it manifests itself in fish bones, lilies, snow, or a luminous vision of death—that "scalding, aortal light," wherein we are "washed and washed / out of our bones."

The world that Oliver would love is, for the most part, brutal, impermanent, and unpeopled. It reeks of death and impurity. Although a few of the forty-six poems in House of Light look compassionately at human subjects—laborers in Indonesia; a woman cleaning toilets in the Singapore airport—Oliver's attention turns most frequently to snakes, egrets, turtles, and other animals in the wild. What fascinates her about these creatures is at once their beauty and their unthinking, inhuman cruelty. "[D]eath / is everywhere," she reminds us, "even in the red swamp / of a flower." In the lion of Serengeti she finds an emblem of terror and awe, of grace and death conjoined:

           Can anyone doubt that the lion of Serengeti
                   is part of the idea of God?
          Can anyone doubt that, for those first, almost-
                         upright bodies
                 in the shadow of Kilimanjaro,
                  in the lush garden of Africa,
          in the continuation of everything beyond each
                         individual thing,
                             the lion
          was both the flower of life and the winch of
                        the bone-breaker,
                 and the agent-of-transformation?

Here as elsewhere, Oliver's rhetoric is tendentious. In a secular age, one might well doubt the poet's theistic supposition. Insofar as one is convinced by these lines, the agent of persuasion is not Oliver's rhetorical questions so much as her singular vision, in which a carnivore becomes a vehicle of change, and the "individual thing"—be it the lion's prey or the human ego—is subjugated to the natural order.

Oliver is not indifferent to human concerns. On the contrary, her poems draw apt and surprising parallels between natural phenomena and the stirrings of the heart. Terns catching fish bring to mind "the heart blanching / in its fold of shadows / because it knows / someday it will be / the fish and the wave / and no longer itself—." The cry of an owl awakens spiritual longings: "I thought of Jesus, how he / crouched in the dark for two nights, / then floated back above the horizon." And the opening of lilies on the surface of a pond recalls the poet to her sadness:

                           … they are
          devoid of meaning, they are
            simply doing,
               from the deepest
      spurs of their being,
        what they are impelled to do
          every summer.
              And so, dear sorrow, are you.
       "The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water"

Yet even in those poems which focus on human feeling, Oliver's stance is rarely self-regarding. She is well aware that the "flapping, blood-gulping crows" have their counterparts in the human psyche. But for Oliver, as for Robinson Jeffers, the natural world is primary. What engages her is not the psyche's inner conflicts but those numinous intersections of the self and the natural world, those meetings in the woods and by the ponds, which engender a sense of reverence and awe:

      I was thinking:
      so this is how you swim inward,
      so this is how you flow outward,
      so this is how you pray.
                 "Five A.M. in the Pinewoods"

Like D. H. Lawrence, Oliver likes to leap abruptly from the minute observation to the sweeping statement. And like Elizabeth Bishop, she is inclined to interrupt her narratives and descriptions with moral and metaphysical questions. When her statements drift toward the oracular ("Nothing's important // except that the great and cruel mystery of the world … not be denied") or when her questions sound naive ("Do you think there is any / personal heaven / for any of us?"), these techniques can be distracting. Within the context of selfless contemplation, they seem willful and intrusive. But in the best of these poems—"Pipefish," "The Terns," "Fish Bones," "Praise"—Oliver's comments ratify her perceptions, enhancing an atmosphere of awe and wonder. And in the last and finest poem of the collection, belief and image fuse in a moment of revelation:

                         so I thought:
                        maybe death
                    isn't darkness, after all,
                       but so much light
                  wrapping itself around us—
                      as soft as feathers—
                  that we are instantly weary
            of looking, and looking, and shut our eyes,
                   not without amazement,
                  and let ourselves be carried,
               as through the translucence of mica,
                         to the river
            that is without the least dapple or shadow—
            that is nothing but light …
            "White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field"

"Soft as feathers" is unfortunate, "so I thought" redundant. But has any recent collection ended with a more radiant vision—or a firmer affirmation?

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This section contains 873 words
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Critical Review by Ben Howard from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.