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Critical Review by David Barber
SOURCE: A review of New and Selected Poems, in Poetry, Vol. 162, No. 4, July, 1993, pp. 233-42.
In the following review, Barber praises Oliver for her unique presence in contemporary poetry, but finds that New and Selected Poems fails to adequately show her growth as a poet.
With apologies to Susan Mitchell, no poet of our day has more of a claim on the title Rapture than Mary Oliver. Many poets seek communion with nature; Oliver courts ravishment by wildness. Many write in the persona of a solitary; Oliver's projected extremity of isolation approaches that of an anchorite. None can match the singlemindedness with which she depicts states of grace and abandon, and none traffics so unironically in the sublime. A Midwesterner long transplanted to New England's rocky coast, Oliver has assimilated no Yankee parsimony of utterance, and little of the flinty mindfulness that marks the Transcendentalist regard for leafy redoubts. One would have to reach back perhaps to [John] Clare or [Christopher] Smart to safely cite a parallel to Oliver's lyricism of radical purification and her unappeasable mania for signs and wonders.
How Oliver arrived at this far end of things, more mystic now than poet in certain respects, does not lie neatly exposed in her New and Selected Poems. Disconcertingly presented in reverse chronology, this ostensible assemblage of thirty years of Oliver's work is also heavily weighted toward the "new"—slightly more than half of the 132 poems have been published within the last decade. Such apportionment reflects, one must suppose, the poet's sense of conviction as well as coherence: the recent verse, evermore immoderate in its renunciations of the social and the civilized, stands squarely in the foreground as if to discourage an evolutionary perspective. As with a great many of Oliver's individual poems, so with this overview of her oeuvre: the setting is drastically foreshortened, the present tense predominates, the reader is hurtled precipitously into the here and the now.
Nonetheless, Oliver's thralldom does have a paper trail, and the stages and transitions of her poetic are here for the weighing. An instructive juncture can be found on facing pages in the selection drawn from her 1979 collection, Twelve Moons. "The dream of my life," Oliver declares in "Entering the Kingdom," "Is to lie down by a slow river / And stare at the light in the trees—/ To learn something by being nothing / A little while but the rich / Lens of attention." What's appealing here is the delicate equilibrium between self-containment and self-surrender, an apprehension of temporality that points to the sharper temperings of the poem's final stanza: "But the crows puff their feathers and cry / Between me and the sun, / And I should go now. / They know me for what I am. / No dreamer, / No eater of leaves." The poem opposite, "Buck Moon—From the Field Guide to Insects," also finds Oliver attempting to "enter the kingdom," this time by choreographing the mind's transit from disinterested scientific fact ("Eighty-eight thousand six-hundred / different species in North America. In the trees, the grasses / around us.") to devotional awe and wild surmise ("Maybe more, maybe / several million on each acre of earth. This one / as well as any other. Where you are standing / at dusk … / Where you feel / a power that is not you but flows / into you like a river").
All trace of mediation vanishes in Oliver's next collection, American Primitive. The field guide with its received knowledge has been banished; the lens of attention has given way to a whirlwind of sensation and exhilaration. The poet has taken up full-time residence in the kingdom:
When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend
all day among the high
my ripped arms, thinking
of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body
accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among
the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.
The headlong breathlessness of American Primitive, its delirious immersion in wood and swamp and creaturehood, staked out an exclusive poetic territory for Oliver. Her rambles in the wilds occasion none of the meditative rigor of A.R. Ammons strolls over dunes and shore; her extravagant embrace of the natural world wants nothing of Gary Snyder's Buddhistic vigilance and restraint. Her animals are not the allegorical, emblematic beasts of [Marianne] Moore or [Elizabeth] Bishop—when Oliver writes a poem titled "The Fish" the denouement is the devouring: "I am the fish, the fish / glitters in me, we are / risen, tangled together, certain to fall / back to the sea." With their explosive enjambments and jagged phrasing, their egrets that burst into "a shower / of white fire!" and their mushrooms that become "red and yellow skulls / pummeling upward / through leaves, / through grasses, / through sand," the poems in American Primitive hurl themselves into nature with a shuddering visceral intensity, each one another convulsive baptism in the primal and the wild.
No swinger of birches, then, but a seeker of blessings, Oliver has continued to write a breakneck visionary lyric ever since. Her marshes and meadows have become found shrines; her recurring owls and bears and snakes have turned totem. In the poems culled from Dream Work and House of Light one finds a smattering of portraits ("Robert Schumann," "Stanley Kunitz") and exotic set pieces ("Indonesia," "Singapore"), but in the main we are planted squarely in Oliver's sensuous realm of earthly delights, a sanctified interior where "The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water" and "White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field." Many of the poems are explicitly and overtly spiritual, throbbing with metaphysical questions ("Is the soul solid, like iron? / Or is it tender and breakable, like / the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?") and prophetic expostulations ("the path to heaven / doesn't lie down in flat miles. / It's in the imagination / with which you perceive / this world, / and the gestures / with which you honor it"). Certain others, like "Wild Geese," promise a grace that resides in our animal essence, so that "whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exacting—/ over and over announcing your place / in the family of things."
Any idiom of ecstasy, left to its own devices, faces almost certain exhaustion. Yet Oliver, judging by the thirty new poems at the head of the book, has only grown more heedless. While her general tenor is marginally suggestive of a "natural piety" that would align her with the revelatory Romanticism of Wordsworth and Blake—"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," she writes in "When Death Comes"—Oliver's repudiation of rational intellect and her retreat from sustained philosophical or moral inquiry has tended to produce something more accurately described as a poetry of noble savagery. Human nature, on Oliver's fierce terms, is but a corruption of what is "wild and perfect" or, variously, what is "perfect and shining." "Whelks" concludes with an altogether typical momentousness:
When I find one
I hold it in my hand,
I look out over that shaking fire,
I shut my eyes. Not often,
but now and again there's a moment
when the heart cries aloud:
yes, I am willing to be
that wild darkness,
that long, blue body of light.
Altogether typical—and sore to say, all too predictable. However sincerely arrived at within the course of this single poem (and "Whelks" undeniably has a fine, briny urgency about it), that "not often" rings false. In these newest Oliver poems the epiphanies come thick and fast, and the exaltations are strictly routine. Even if one's sympathies lie, as mine do, with the spirit and scope of Oliver's undertaking, it's difficult not to mark with some dismay that, for all their reveling in unruly organic life, Oliver's poems are becoming increasingly mechanical. Most often composed across jaggedly indented quatrains or in tumbling verse paragraphs abristle with Dickinsonian dashes, their standard contract calls for them to open in riveted observation, shift abruptly as the speaker questions or comments upon the scene, and close, after a more or less uniform page and a half, with a burst of exclamation or a flash of immanence.
More damningly still, these formulaic tendencies point to thoroughgoing rhetorical weaknesses of the sort that call to mind Moore's caveat that "excess is the common substitute for energy." Oliver's language is increasingly beholden to humdrum adjectival intensifiers ("wonderful," "beautiful," "shining"), inert abstractions ("dream," "love," "darkness," "happiness," "wildness"), all-purpose figuration (the gullet of a gannet is a "black fire"; a thistle bud is "a coin of reddish fire"; consciousness is "a slow fire"), and sententious overstatement ("life is real / and pain is real, / but death is an impostor"; "in this world I am as rich / as I need to be"). Too often, a poem such as "Poppies" that begins in concentrated particulars ("The poppies send up their / orange flares swaying / in the wind, their congregations / are a levitation / of bright dust, of thin / and lacy leaves") lapses into editorialized pronouncements, the articulations of Oliver's triggering subject becoming fodder for oracular phraseology and inspirational sermonettes: "of course / loss is the great lesson. // But I also say this: that light / is an invitation / to happiness, / and that happiness, / when it's done right, / is a kind of holiness, / palpable and redemptive." Cutting away from her fixed gaze to her effusive "message," Oliver skates perilously close to the overweening rhetoric of the self-help aisle and the recovery seminar.
Reading these florid canticles against the more peopled and more prosodically alert work from early Oliver volumes like No Voyage and The River Styx, Ohlo, I found myself longing for Oliver to recover a measure of her former solicitude for heritage and custom, to be impelled for old time's sake by fondness or wariness rather than joy or dread, to tarry awhile within the fold and the pale again. It's not that poems like "Being Country Bred," "Spring in the Classroom" or "Learning About the Indians" are necessarily more accomplished for being more couched in autobiography and hedged with home truths, but they do reinforce the impression that Oliver has rather overplayed her hand in recent years, devoting herself to nonce forms of druidic incantation at the expense of a greater, a more generous range of feeling and sensibility. Given that Oliver's sacramental regard for elemental nature is an indispensable counterweight to the painterly approach toward flora and fauna so prevalent in our period style, it is to be hoped that she will remain faithful to the mysteries she treasures by again writing poems driven by sustained attention and not overreaching emotion, poems entrusted to sight and insight somewhat more than to divination and vision.
This section contains 1,841 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)