New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Robyn Selman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
This section contains 921 words
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Critical Review by Robyn Selman

SOURCE: "Natural History," in Village Voice, Vol. 38, No. 2, January 12, 1993, pp. 81-2.

In the following review of New and Selected Poems, Selman praises Oliver's composure, sincerity, and dedication to her subject.

It's a beautiful winter day—one can't help noticing the day when one reads Mary Oliver—a day on which she's won another prize, this time the National Book Award for her seventh book, New and Selected Poems. I think of her at home in Provincetown, where she has a reputation for being something of a recluse. I also think of Elizabeth Bishop, the other National Book Award-winning recluse, with whom Oliver has much in common. Like Bishop, Oliver doesn't go in much for politics, poetic or public. You won't see poems by either of them in women-only anthologies. And the similarities continue: Oliver's poems are not, strictly speaking, personal. She rarely teaches and gives readings far less often than her contemporaries. As Bishop was, Mary Oliver is shy.

But not on the page. She is one of a very few poets who declares her artistic intention boldly and unasked, usually right up front like a platform, or maybe a dedication. "When it's over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms."

With the style of an Eve Arden character. Oliver's poetic composure is unflagging. She sets the tone of her poems straight off, but she keeps her voice gentle, articulate, and capable, as self-knowing as Eve's. Although, as Bishop did, Oliver often asks questions in her poems ("Is the soul solid, like iron?"), questions that make room for ambivalence and quarrel, the poems rarely fall into an impasse. They're solved a thousand times by beauty.

     Do you love this world?
     Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
     Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
     Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden.
     and softly,
     and exclaiming of their dearness,
     fill your arms with the white and pink flowers

Oliver's passionate medium is almost always the pastoral. Though one of her books, Dream Work contains meditations on the Holocaust and personal loss, the majority of her work, like D. H. Lawrence's, May Swenson's, Bishop's, and Marianne Moore's, focuses timelessly on the natural world. Unlike Moore and Bishop, Oliver doesn't anthropomorphize to quite the same effect. She is—and this isn't a negative comment, for I have none—less playful, more dogged, deadly sincere.

"One morning / the fox came down the hill, glittering and confident, / and didn't see me—and I thought: / so this is the world. / I'm not in it. / It is beautiful." Originally from Ohio, Oliver moved to New England, where she worked as a secretary to Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister Norma. She also brings to mind the sober side of Millay, with whom she shares New England and a penchant for poems that have as their underlying subject matter the inevitability of one's own death. And like the later Millay, and most obviously Blake, Oliver infuses her work with a touch of the ecstatic.

In her own time, Oliver has a contemporary in the ecstatic musician Van Morrison; I draw the comparison in part to say that Oliver has few contemporaries in current American poetry, as well as to say that she and Van share a connection to a pastoral life that seems far away (to say the least) from our collective urban grasp. "Every year, / and every year / the hatchlings wake in the swaying branches, / in the silver baskets, / and love the world. / Is it necessary to say any more? / Have you heard them singing in the wind, above the final fields? / Have you ever been so happy in your life?"

Mary Oliver is no guest in the woods. Her quotidian is made up of long walks, dog in tow, sleeping in a tent by a marsh, going out, not in, when a storm comes. At the outset of each poem, we are reminded of her daily task: testing the poet's vision. Her dedication to it is intense. For example, unlike other poets who use symbols from various mediums, Oliver keens her metaphors in the natural palette. Light of nature is never compared to the light of TV. ("When death comes / like an iceberg between the shoulder blades.")

In the vastness of New and Selected Poems, something new is unearthed about Oliver's insatiable hunger for the natural. The personal poems of Dream Work, which fall roughly halfway through the 250 pages, give off a centrifugal energy, drawing the reader in, throwing their power outward. But they're not confessional poems in the style to which we've grown accustomed. Personal moments appear like cloud formations, dense but in motion, throwing long, dark shadows of child abuse and breakdown as well as lightning bolts of blame, rage, and bitterness, all with only the lightest narrative detail. In the afterglow of these few pieces, one senses that for this poet nature is the parent, the companion, the hope, the boldly unselfconscious id riding the ego through the seasons.

     I was always running around, looking
     at this and that.
     If I stopped
     the pain
     was unbearable.
     If I stopped and thought, maybe
     the world
     can't be saved,
     the pain
     was unbearable.
     Finally, I had noticed enough.
     All around me in the forest
     the white moths floated.

These new and selected poems; arranged newest to oldest, work, as you might expect, naturally—like memory, or the mind as it ages; true to a life of the imagination, strikingly declarative, and not at all shy.

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This section contains 921 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Robyn Selman