New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by David Baker

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
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Critical Review by David Baker

SOURCE: A review of House of Light, in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 192-202.

In the following excerpt, Baker questions the "isolationist" and "righteous" tendencies in Oliver's poetry.

Like Stanley Plumly, Mary Oliver is a poet who reworks her passions. While Plumly's poems may have relatively few characters, Oliver's are downright isolated, hermetic; and while Plumly's phrasing is slow, severe, haunted, Mary Oliver's music is loose, humble, casual, innocent. I happen to like her work a good bit, and so find her new House of Light full of pleasures worth my repeated attention, but I also maintain a suspicion or two.

What I like most about Oliver's poems is their reverence for the natural world, their politics (usually implied rather than declared) of ecology, stewardship, and human connection. Her plain style and her persistent, nearly unvoiceable awe at the powerful beauty of nature are well-matched partners. She's in direct descent from the New England naturalists—Bartram and Thoreau, for instance—and, like them, is a rugged individualist. But at times she can seem more nearly an isolationist who prefers the company of herons, black bears, and oak trees to people:

        I have been thinking
        about living
        like the lilies
        that blow in the fields.
        They rise and fall
        in the wedge of the wind,
        and have no shelter
        from the tongues of the cattle,
        and have no closets or cupboards,
        and have no legs.
        Still I would like to be
        as wonderful
        as that old idea.

These opening lines of "Lilies"—which echo the strategy and subject of a great many poems in this book—directly express Oliver's repeated struggle between the human and the natural, and perhaps purposely recall not only the Biblical lilies of the field but also Whitman's lovely section 32 of "Song of Myself": "I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained…." This is, of course, the wonderful old idea, that nature can serve as example and model for human behavior, if only we are unashamed enough, innocent enough, free enough—unhuman enough. And of course Oliver realizes the many reasons prohibiting her reaching such a state of naturalness. It's the age-old realization that the world is too much with us. Still, Oliver frequently wishes to transcend the human world, and the concluding lines of "Lilies" identify this ultimately mystical, more problematic, side of Oliver's vision:

     I think I will always be lonely
     in this world, where the cattle
     graze like a black and white river—
     where the ravishing lilies
     melt, without protest, on their tongues—
     where the hummingbird, whenever there is a fuss,
     just rises and floats away

To be "ravishing," of course is not only to be beautiful but also to be seized and carried away. Leaving the world of the human requires a death.

This is the point of one of my difficulties with Oliver. She persists in providing many poems with the same, perhaps too-easy solution—politically and aesthetically—merely to rise and float away from a troubling world, to erase it or to erase the self within that world. Occasionally Oliver seems just too good at deflecting blame or responsibility, good at accusing by implication or avoidance, but she's not quite so good at accepting her own share of guilt or involvement, and that is a central difference between her and one of her abiding influences, James Wright. Oliver often intones a rhetoric similar to Wright's voice in The Branch Will Not Break, wherein the human world is often a poor parody of the sublime, saving world of nature, and yet she seldom assumes the kind of participation that Wright demanded of himself. Only the fortunate few can afford to live in the luxury of expansive natural isolation. Her righteousness or piety is Oliver's least becoming quality: "And mostly I'm grateful that I take this world so seriously," she informs us in "The Gift." Too often, the only people we encounter in "this world" are the likes of Van Gogh, Buddha, Michelangelo, Jesus, Blake, Mahler—Oliver's preferred company of the misunderstood, the martyred, and (significantly) the absent.

Other times, though, Oliver seems to sense and question her own isolate habit. In what must be one of her most important and powerful poems, "Singapore," Oliver directly addresses her naturalist's impulse:

     A poem should always have birds in it.
     Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings.
     Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees.

But here, as in a few other poems in House of Light, Oliver's speaker does not stand beside a pond or in a field; she is in the restroom of a Singapore airport, face to face with a woman who "knelt there, washing something in the white bowl." While Oliver's speaker longs for her familiar poetic—"a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem"—she cannot this time avoid or disregard the unpleasant, the human, as "disgust argued in [her] stomach." Oliver's poetry is quite persuasive when she allows herself to become politically, or merely personally, involved. In the second half of "Singapore," she uses her love of nature to inform her growing sense of connection, of appreciation:

     She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this?
     Everybody needs a job.
     Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
     But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
         which is dull enough.
     She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as
         hubcaps, with a blue rag.
     Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing.
     She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river.
     Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

The deliberate similes "like a river" and "like the wing of a bird" signal the poem's leap, the poet's self-conscious insistence to make room for both the painfully human and the beautifully natural by answering her own earlier assertion (and confession) that a poem "should always have birds [and rivers and trees] in it." This poem is an example of Oliver working harder to justify the choices of other poems wherein nature is merely a place of private solace and comfort. Here the poet's own job is similar to the custodian's, to serve as caretaker to the human and the natural, to try to make the world clean again; in essence, for Oliver, not to ignore the world in the first place, since beauty and grace are characteristics of people as well as snowy owls. But, as Oliver admits in this poem, beauty and grace in people must come with the inevitable price of pain, toil, and involvement. The final two stanzas provide an example of Oliver's sympathy and artistry at work, at their best:

     I don't doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
     And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop and
         fly down to the river.
     This probably won't happen.
     But maybe it will. If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?
     Of course, it isn't.
     Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
     the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
     the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
     the way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
     the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

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This section contains 1,177 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by David Baker