New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Judith Kitchen

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

SOURCE: A review of New and Selected Poems, in The Georgia Review, Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 145-59.

In the following review, Kitchen notes a disparity between earlier poems which feature a division between nature and narrator and later poems in which the narrator becomes one with nature.

Her [Oliver's] New and Selected Poems reminds us of the territory she has covered since her first publications in the early 1960's, and I am glad to see some old favorites in this larger context. For example, "Ghosts" mourns the loss of the buffalo by imagining a time when they were abundant; then, with its insistent question—"have you noticed?"—the poem forces the reader to examine the silence of extinction, the blissful oblivion of those who have inherited the land. From an earlier book "Entering the Kingdom" remains an excellent example of how human consciousness divides us from our own environment. The speaker of the poem goes out into the realm of the crows and is seen by them as "possibly dangerous." But the speaker wants only "to learn something by being nothing / a little while but the rich / lens of attention." The crows have the last word:

      They know me for what I am.
      No dreamer,
      No eater of leaves.

Or rather, she has the last word. The speaker is forced to articulate the crows' position; observation alone does not suffice. The division between the two realms remains. In spite of the promise of the title, she has failed to enter the kingdom on its terms.

The sharpened edge to Oliver's earlier work has been blunted in the intervening years. Her later poems began to celebrate through a kind of enraptured description; anything natural was a source of wonder. From there it was an easy step to grant to nature human emotions, and so it is that "Spring" can end with this image of a bear: "all day I think of her—/her white teeth, / her wordlessness / her perfect love." Or that "Roses, Late Summer" can allow nature, instead of informing the human life, to become a substitute: "If I had another life … / I would be a fox, or a tree / full of waving branches. / I wouldn't mind being a rose / in a field full of roses." Even Oliver's questions seem to have presumptive answers: "Why should I have it [the soul], and not the camel?" Everywhere she exhibits an impulse toward fusion, toward discovering a place where the speaker can lay down her human burden and, quite literally, become one with the natural order.

Interestingly, in the thirty new poems which comprise the first section of the book, this essentially Romantic impulse is at war with her earlier vision of separation. If these poems by themselves comprised a single volume, I would be forced to note its radical divisions. Even as Oliver recognizes the inability of language to bridge the gap (referring to nature's "dumb dazzle" or its lack of "expression" or its "cold and glassy eye"), she creates a space where nature's "green energy" can claim her in its "husky arms." She confronts the reader with a willed use of the pathetic fallacy. So it is that a deer can have "solicitude" before taking flight, that a waterfall can seem "surprised" by the "unexpected kindness of the air," that the gannet eating the fish is a beautiful thing because "nothing in this world moves / but as a positive power," that the owl can fill himself with a "red and digestible joy." The adjectives betray the stance: the natural is equated with the "good." The opposite is also implied: if something is not of nature, it is potentially bad.

In "Goldenrod," Oliver almost confronts her own dilemma: "And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far, // that is better than these light-filled bodies?" Well, for one thing, I want to answer, the ability to speak about them, to be able to note that it is "natural and godly" to bend in the wind. Aware that the natural world is actually indifferent to her, Oliver deliberately decides not to be indifferent to it. This gives rise to the ecstatic voice of many of the poems, and it is a voice that, because of its very excess, is most compelling. The reader is able to have reservations and still savor Oliver's ability to go with the rush of feeling. In "Peonies" she can gather the flowers with their "sweet sap" and "honeyed heaviness," exclaiming of their "dearness," and we willingly allow her this sensibility because it is so wholly hers. My favorite of such moments is at the end of "Poppies":

   Inside the bright fields,
 
   touched by their rough and spongy gold,
   I am washed and washed
   in the river
   of earthly delight—
 
   and what are you going to do—
   what can you do
   about it—
   deep, blue night?

Frost characteristically recognizes the impenetrability of nature; Oliver defies it to shut her out.

Oliver's opposing impulse is toward a more objective depiction of nature—what happens is simply what happens—accompanied by a self-conscious awareness of human isolation. The last stanza of "Rain" begins "Where life has no purpose, / and is neither civil nor intelligent," and this reader sighs in recognition. In "Hawk" the bird turns into a white blade—and then the blade falls. The title of "Lonely, White Fields" reveals its deliberate slippage; the owl's nightly solitude is echoed by a speaker whose singular voice says, "I don't know / what death's ultimate / purpose is …" And the snow simply goes on falling, "flake after perfect flake."

Imagined death is at the heart of many of these new poems—and, for Oliver, death is the ultimate merger of the human and the natural. The section ends with just such an image:

                                      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.

Oliver's failure to be adequate to her own epistemological questions makes many of these poems both interesting and irritating—how, for instance, is beauty to be perceived except through human eyes? By looking to nature as worthy of attention in its own right, Oliver acts as assessor. Her metaphors are often formulated in terms of coins, as if giving nature value in human terms. Similarly, her whole poetic endeavor to merge with nature through language reveals the contradiction (of which Oliver is painfully aware) implicit in the very phrase "nature writing."

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This section contains 1,065 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Judith Kitchen