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Critical Review by Maxine Kumin
SOURCE: "Intimations of Mortality," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 7, April, 1993, p. 19.
In the following review of New and Selected Poems, Kumin praises Oliver for "reaching for the unattainable while grateful for its unattainability."
Mary Oliver is a patroller of wetlands in the same way that Thoreau was an inspector of snowstorms. She is without vanity or pretense in her celebrations of the lives of mussels, hermit crabs, hummingbirds and other creatures, including a few select people. Reading through her New and Selected Poems, I was struck again and again by the exactitude of her imagery, by her daring marriages of animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms to the human condition, and by her slightly amended transcendentalism, which seems to allow for a stoical embrace of her own mortality. The book is composed of thirty new poems and generous selections from her eight earlier works, and was the winner of the 1992 National Book Award.
This splendid collection works backward from the most recently written poems to ones from Oliver's first collection, No Voyage. The early Ohio poems crisply delineate individuals ranging from Hattie Bloom, her uncle's lost love, to Miss Willow Bangs, the grammar-school teacher who bursts forth at the end of "Spring in the Classroom" "all furry and blooming … in the Art Teacher's arms." Here, too, are Mr. White, the tamed Indian of "Learning About the Indians," Anne, said to be insane, "tending so desperately all / the small civilities," and Oliver's own relatives, evoked in poignant vignettes. We meet her father, who "spent his last winter / Making ice-grips for shoes / Out of strips of inner tube and scrap metal," and her grandmother, who "cooled and labeled / All the wild sauces of the brimming year."
Absent from Oliver's purview are poems we frequently encounter elsewhere today—about exotic triptychs come upon in Italian hill towns; rhapsodizing over glittering traffic rendered majestic by urban lighting; love poems, common or uncommon. But we do get, in among the early works, Aunt Elsie and Uncle William, and the poet as young girl sent out nightly to find the source of Elsie's hallucinatory night music. In this mental and visual landscape, we are in the time of the "Wolf Moon," of "lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes / in the leafless lanes / in the needled dark," in "the season / of the hunter Death; / with his belt of knives, / his black snowshoes …"
A three-part, wrenchingly spare and moving apostrophe to James Wright, Oliver's mentor at Ohio State, dates from 1980, the year of his death. She evokes the quintessential hooting lament of freight trains: "of course. I thought they would stop / when you did. I thought you'd never sicken / anyway, or, if you did, Ohio / would fall down too, barn / by bright barn…." Typically, she refuses to display sentiment: "I had a red rose to send you, / but it reeked of occasion."
Spanning her career in an orderly fashion, New and Selected Poems invites speculation about influences. James Wright is always mentioned as having influenced Oliver. Certainly she shares with him an attentiveness to the working-class world about her and a dogged determination to speak of it in simple diction. But it is also possible to point to May Swenson, who wrote delightful and witty "concrete" poems that assumed fitting shapes on the page.
Oliver dedicates a recent poem titled "The Waterfall" to Swenson, who died in 1989. The four-line stanzas indent in an orderly fashion, irregular longer lines alternating with brief ones, perhaps in imitation of "the water falling, / its lace legs and its womanly arms sheeting down…." It concludes: "And maybe there will be, / after all, / some slack and perfectly balanced / blind and rough peace, finally, / in the deep and green and utterly motionless pools after all that falling?" It is impossible in this space to reproduce exactly the dance of many of Oliver's poems on the page, but the careful reader will also see patterns that enhance the text in, for example, "The Swan," "White Flowers" and "The Egret."
Swenson's irreverent anthropomorphism in such poems as "News from the Cabin"—"Hairy was here. / He hung on a sumac seed pod. / Part of his double tail hugged the crimson / scrotum under cockscomb leaves …"—may have reinforced Oliver's inclination to render fanciful a recognizable world. Although her early poems also display a startling ability to anthropomorphize (or engage in pathetic fallacy, as John Ruskin called it), in her later poems the vivid and often astonishing imagery actually comes to drive the narrative.
Nineteenth-century poets so overfilled the vessel with babbling brooks and sighing trees—Ruskin so effectively denounced the practice—that we modern writers are wary of trapping ourselves in unsubstantiated pathos. Mary Oliver, however, walks boldly into this terrain. She can afford to be fearless because she almost never stumbles. Her acuity is enviable. Her sun has "old, buttery fingers"; the turkey buzzards' beaks are "soft as spoons"; a skunk "shuffles, unhurried across the wet fields / in its black slippers … / and two bulbs of … diatribe under its tail…." When the poet lights two lamps in her small house, they are "like two visitors with good stories…." And an invented relative, a "great-great-aunt dark as hickory" is composed of "old twist of feathers and birch bark…."
While we are pursuing influences, we might well ask if the work of Anne Sexton has played any part in shaping Oliver's poetry. Sexton wrote in "Jesus Cooks," one of nine poems in a series titled "The Jesus Papers," "Jesus multitudes were hungry / and He said, O Lord, / send down a short-order cook." Oliver's "Sweet Jesus" begins with this kind of wry dislocation—"Sweet Jesus, talking / his melancholy madness / stood up in the boat / and the sea lay downy silky and sorry"—but then moves away from Sexton's tongue-in-cheek blasphemy. In another poem, a sense of longing for innocence and order suggests Sexton: "I wouldn't mind being a rose / in a field full of roses. / Fear has not yet occurred to them, nor ambition."
Wherever we look we find Oliver reaching for the unattainable while grateful for its unattainability. She stands quite comfortably on the margins of things, on the line between earth and sky, the thin membrane that separates human from what we loosely call animal. Watching a grasshopper "gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes," "lift[ing] her forearms and thoroughly wash[ing] her face," she declaims: "I don't know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down / into the grass … how to be idle and blessed…." She sees huge drama writ small in the things she observes. In "White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field," not only do the line placements suggest the swooping down onto the snow, the pounce, the lifting off with the prey in its talons—a small nightly drama of death and dismemberment—but the image opens out onto a disquisition on mortality: "[M]aybe death / isn't darkness, after all, / but so much light / wrapping itself around us / … scalding, aortal light…."
We have our poets of ecstasy—Walt Whitman in the last century, Gerald Stern and Edna St. Vincent Millay in this one—and of threnody (too numerous to mention). But I think we do not have many poets like Oliver, who without apology affirms life everywhere she observes it. She is an indefatigable guide to the natural world, particularly to its lesserknown aspects: to turtles and owls, the spurned snake and abjured goldenrod and stagnant, reeking pond full of leeches and lilies. Perhaps because of her awareness of the precarious balance between life and death, she is willing to discard all the usual defenses, to risk the simple declaration: "Nobody knows what the soul is"; "There is only one question: / how to love this world"; "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."
Oliver's newer poems focus ever more trenchantly on the frail links between the human and the natural world, and on the passage from life into death. It is our misfortune that she has never shined the bright light of her introspection on human love. I trust whatever she tells me about moths and marsh marigolds, fingerlings and egrets, and am prepared to trust what she might have to say about passion. But I can hardly think of another book of poems that has moved me as deeply as this one.
This section contains 1,442 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)