New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Carolyne Wright

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
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Critical Review by Carolyne Wright

SOURCE: A review of American Primitive, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 59, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 108-112.

Wright is an American poet and educator. In the following review, she finds in Oliver's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection both stunningly original and cliched elements.

This sixth volume of poetry by Mary Oliver is deceptively facile in its control of the language of the contemporary free-verse pastoral lyric. The book is often breathtaking—both in its luminous apparent simplicity (in the most successful poems), and in its seemingly narrow avoidance of triteness or flatness at times, especially in the final lines of the dozen or so weaker pieces. Some readers may object to the ordinariness of some poems here: haven't we all read too much of the conventional imagery and sentiments inspired by "Spring" or "May" or "The Roses"? And yet other poems—"Mushrooms," "The Kitten," "An Old Whorehouse," "John Chapman"—are stunning in the fresh ways in which they reveal the essential strangeness of the all-too-readily-taken-for-granted world. It may be odd to say, but I found these poems easy to read—not greatly demanding (as if making great demands on the reader's retrieval system of verbal echoes, literary allusions, and cultural phenomena were always a virtue), yet often amazing in the sudden turn of phrase, the unrehearsed conflation or dovetailing of perception:

     How sometimes everything
     closes up, a painted fan, landscapes and moments
     flowing together until the sense of distance—
     say, between Clapp's Pond and me—
     vanishes, edges slide together
     like the feathers of a wing … ("Clapp's Pond")

Mary Oliver's voice is at once celebratory and elegaic; her subject matter is largely that of the primitive American landscape, the fragile realm in which human passions and needs, and the primordial cycles of nature, still meet and interact:

     I try to remember when time's measure
     painfully chafes, for instance when autumn
     flares out at the last, boisterous and
                      like us longing
     to stay—how everything lives, shifting
     from one bright vision to another, forever
     in these momentary pastures. ("Fall Song")

The range of these poems—their movement from Ohio's forests and fields, the speaker's childhood country of the imagination, to Cape Cod's scrub pines, salt estuaries and views of the sea—is reminiscent at times of Roethke's "North American Cycle," although Oliver's voice is less sustained and her poems shorter, given more to immediate sensory experience than to extended meditations upon that experience. Perhaps it would be more accurate to liken her to Williams in her enumeration of sense impressions in short lines broken for dramatic effect:

    come down from Red Rock, lips streaked
    black, fingers purple, throat cool, shirt
    full of fernfingers, head full of windy
    whistling. It
    takes all day. ("Blackberrles")

Another poem, "The Plum Trees," seems a response of sorts to Williams' famous "This is Just to Say." After a rather obvious play on the etymologies of root-words ("there's nothing / so sensible as sensual inundation") Oliver speaks with the same urgent directness as does Williams' note tacked to the refrigerator:

      the only way
      to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it
      into the body first, like small
      wild plums.

But not all these poems are exultant in their "singing in the / heaven of appetite." There is a pervading undertone of loss and resignation to loss, of death and reconciliation to the world's ongoing processes, among which death is merely another turn of the great wheel. As do mushrooms "when they are done being perfect," Oliver knows that we, too, will all eventually "slide back under the shining fields of rain," and she evokes the unstudied beauty of the mushrooms' letting go. Instead of exploiting deformity's media potential, Oliver carries the "perfectly black" stillborn cyclopean kitten into a field and buries it, reminding us, and herself, what it in its perfect color and imperfect form really represents: not hideous error, but the fact that "life is infinitely inventive." Still, she's not entirely comfortable with her consolations, and must reiterate her rationale at poem's end:

      I think I did right to go out alone
      and give it back peacefully, and cover the place
      with the reckless blossoms of weeds.

Again, one thinks of Williams' obsession in Paterson with the "Beautiful Thing," the essence of loveliness persisting in the midst of violence, deformity and death—a loveliness not cosmetically superficial, but indwelling. Other poems address themselves to the flora and fauna of Oliver's surroundings, and evoke a sense of the fragility of species, even if they are not directly threatened by human predation ("Egrets," "Ghosts," "Blossom," "The Fish," "Humpbacks").

Sometimes, however, the poet's elegiac vehicle veers dangerously close to the prosy clichés of "inspirational verse," and disappoints the reader who doesn't need to be told, after the imagery and tone have already implied their messages, that in the Mad River region, for example, "the wounds of the past / are ignored" ("Tecumseh"); or that the realization in "May" of our union with all things is a form of "spiritual honey" and is "as good / as a poem or a prayer"; or that because the wood hen calling her chicks at "Little Sister Pond" is "touching, feeling / good," the speaker and her companion are also "meanwhile / touching, feeling / pretty good / also." In this last example, the enjambments are melodramatic to the point of silliness; the burden of the lines is not sufficiently profound or moving to bear the weighty emphasis that each line break would suggest. Some readers, especially the younger poets among them, may be disheartened by such falls in diction, wondering why they work so hard to make each image, each line, startlingly original and fresh, when (as too frequently happens) a mid-career poet with an established reputation, a battery of jacket blurbs from other "name" poets, and a standing contract with a major publisher, can content herself with the sort of unevenness that would only propel the manuscripts of the "unknowns" back over the transom more rapidly than otherwise. Perhaps it is true that "Suffering"—or at least the uncertainties and vicissitudes of publishing and job seeking—leads to Great Art; but must this truism always have appended the corollary that once the poet has struggled successfully to gain rightful recognition, she (or he) will abandon selectivity and self-criticism, be satisfied with less than earlier work shows her to be capable of? Mary Oliver is less subject to this corollary than many, however, and there are instances in which she employs direct statement or the didactic mode in a way that her readers can both identify with as emotive pronouncement, and assent to as workable poetry:

    To live in this world
    you must be able
    to do three things:
    to love what is mortal
    to hold it
    against your bones knowing
    your own life depends on it;
    and, when the time comes to let it go,
    to let it go.    ("In Blackwater Woods")

In many of these poems, though, it is evident that the speaker has undergone some very real suffering; the losses referred to are personal and specific, but not subjected to direct autobiographical reportage. Although she could not properly be called a confessional poet, we sense that Oliver has earned the right to inner landscapes in which "the secret name / of every death is life again" ("Skunk Cabbages"). In "University Hospital, Boston," the speaker visits a convalescing loved one, listens to the hopeful (but possibly self-deluded?) prognosis, then stands alone in an empty private room at visit's end, contemplating what the death of the room's previous occupant ("someone … here with a gasping face") and the vanishing of her own beloved, amidst the impenetrable impersonality of the institution, would mean. In "Something," two lovers are very much aware of the voyeur outside their window, but "kiss / anyway"; in the fullness of their joy, they can extend a generosity of sentiment toward their "lonely brother." But then all changes: the voyeur, "a man who can no longer bear his life," commits suicide in the woods; and one of the lovers dies. The bereaved speaker, "no longer young," now "knows what a kiss is worth." In the face of such wisdom that can only be attained too late, Oliver offers no easy consolation: life goes on for the living, and time continues "reasonable and bloodless" in spite of the mourner's grief and need for something, anything, even if it be only "the dark wound / of watching"—vicarious or remembered fulfillment.

American Primitive most nearly warrants its title and its evocation of Williams in the poems that focus on the history of this country and its losses—primarily those of the Native Americans of Ohio's Mad River region ("Tecumseh") or of the pioneers who eventually displaced them ("The Lost Children"). The most fully realized of these poems for me is "John Chapman," the legal name of Johnny Appleseed, whom American folk legend has elevated into a sort of secular, arboreal-specific Saint Francis. Oliver's poem gains ironic depth by demythologizing the man who lived unharmed among Indians, settlers, and wild beasts, who had "apple trees [spring] up behind him lovely / as young girls." The trite simile here is ironically deliberate: we soon learn that despite Appleseed-the-hero's ostensible rendering of honor to "all God's creatures!" Chapman-the-man harbors fellow-feeling for all but the female of his own species:

      Mrs. Price, late of Richland County,
      at whose parents' house he sometimes lingered,
      recalled: he spoke
      only once of women and his gray eyes
      bristled into ice. "Some
      are deceivers," he whispered, and she felt
      the pain of it, remembered it
      into old age.

But the young woman (perhaps secretly attracted to her parents' guest?) who never forgets the force of Chapman's misogyny is an exception. Like so many from the realms of Paul Bunyan, George Washington and the Cherry Tree, and the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, Chapman's human faults have been glossed over in history's canonization; he has become "the good legend," but his secrets and his pain have also left their mark on America:

                       In spring, in Ohio,
      in the forests that are left you can still find
      sign of him: patches
      of cold white fire.

This is a book that we can read quickly, and therefore we run the risk of missing a great deal of it. It can also grow on us, unobtrusively—like the silence of the few forests left—and remind us that surface flash is not as enduring as "the unseen, the unknowable / center" toward which Mary Oliver's poetry is directed. American Primitive has won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984; it is an award that the poet's work to date certainly merits.

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This section contains 1,710 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Carolyne Wright