New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Paul Oppenheimer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
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Critical Review by Paul Oppenheimer

SOURCE: "The Innocence of a Mirror," in American Book Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, October-November, 1993, p. 11.

In the following excerpt, Oppenheimer reviews New and Selected Poems and praises Oliver for maintaining an honest balance in her portrayals of nature.

Mary Oliver's poetry regards nature with a pioneer's wary eye. Not for her the enthusiasm, which often looks like hysteria these days, of the nature-can-do-no-wrong school of thought, or the worship of natural forces by people who applaud the purity and balance of geological catastrophes, such as tidal waves and avalanches, while dismissing as corruption all valuable and even splendid human accomplishments, such as architecture. Oliver's poetry takes note of a natural murderousness. The lines report the slaughters to be found in any sylvan utopia. They limn a systematic violence. Her aptly horrific sketch of "the soft rope of a water moccasin," for instance, in "Death at a Great Distance," shows it slipping into a tropical pool "where some bubbles / on the surface of that underworld announced / a fatal carelessness," and where "death blurted out of that perfectly arranged mouth." The idea of balance here is not ecology so much as a commonsensical honesty.

It is also that of a general solidity of aesthetic judgment. Oliver's poems demonstrate an awareness of themselves as art, acknowledging a drastic though often scanted difference between art and propaganda, to wit, that while art may affirm certain values, it cannot set about promoting them, no matter how excellent they maybe, without at once surrendering its very lifeblood to dullness, cliches, and pomposity. Pompous finger-wagging is almost entirely missing from these two volumes. If their larger theme is a rural, natural world, with wolves, crows, bears, roses, and ponds penned in vigorous portrait-poems, their method is an innocence of exploration. All is clean air among these stanzas, and the innocence is that of a style refreshingly unstained by sleight-of-hand messages to the reader, snobberies of doctrine, and scurrilities of self-pity. When this works well, what we are given is the innocence of a mirror, one that apprehends nature while shrinking from eccentric distortion—what Schiller may have meant by the smartly naive in art—and one that is devoid of the usual modernist and postmodernist contempt for the language of ordinary human beings.

In fact humanity is pretty nearly absent from Oliver's poetry, or at least this might be one's first impression. A rash judgment could even lead into assorting her with those trendy nature-poets who confuse art with advertising for some sort of save-the-planet campaign, though nothing could be more absurd. Through nine volumes to date, in a career stretching over almost three decades (her first volume appeared in 1963), she has implicitly urged that to reveal how "the crows break off from the rest of the darkness," or how a skunk "shuffles, unhurried, / across the wet fields / in its black slippers," is to clarify a set of essential, and utterly human, states of mind. In many of her poems, animals, flowers, and landscapes become gateways to human exploration. The unfrocking of a few of nature's mysteries exposes human conflicts. The passion of a vulture opens a sluice of human terror, while a glimpse of two does at dawn, as in "Five A.M. in the Pinewoods," reveals "how you swim inward," "how you swim outward," and "how you pray."

The natural world is thus no mere objective correlative for this poet's emotions, nor, in the most acute of her poems, is a vivacious animal kingdom simply appropriated through false personification. Sentimentality is rejected, and observation continuously checks any maudlin subjectivity. A metallic hardness of phrasing, which results from reshuffling the usual contexts of words, but this with an intelligence that heeds the literal meanings of the words themselves, produces insights, and nature becomes, finally, a telescope through which to examine purely human sufferings, hopes, and madness. "The Deer," typically, focuses this telescope on what amounts to a spiritual quest, which is not necessarily religious, for "the earnest work" of the uncluttered soul:

     You never know.
     The body of night opens
     like a river, it drifts upward like white smoke,
     like so many wrappings of mist.
     And on the hillside two deer are walking along
     just as though this wasn't
     the owned, tilled earth of today
     but the past.
     I did not see them the next day, or the next,
     but in my mind's eye—
     there they are, in the long grass,
     like two sisters.
     This is the earnest work. Each of us is given
     only so many mornings to do it—
     to look around and love
     the oily fur of our lives,
     the hoof and the grass-stained muzzle.

The deer here go on to inspire a "terror of idleness, / like a red thirst," and a realization that "Death isn't just an idea":

      When we die the body breaks open
      like a river;
      the old body goes on, climbing the hill.

The hill may be the cemetery-hill of decay ("I never said / Nature wasn't cruel," Oliver recalls in another poem, "The Foxes") or, equally, what she elsewhere terms a "turning into something of inexplicable value," but there are powerful hints in many of her poems that the "something" must be the universe itself, or nature, or God. An assumed harmony of a natural order of things, whatever the cruelty of nature and the miserable choices that human beings make, dominates such poems as "What Is It?" and "Kingfisher." Nature itself appears, in "Nature," alternatively, as full of tact, as an ambassador of numinous repetitions and "bristling life" in which "nothing new / would ever happen." This freshness of perception throughout, together with an admirable coolness of diction—no doubt the result of Oliver's commitment to doing something "perfectly," as she puts it—is totally engaging. Yet there are serious risks in her affirmation of spiritual transcendence that one finds offered up so uncritically. The chief of these is that the poetry may slide off into mere eloquence. Allied with this is the risk of vapid generalizations. "Dreams do not lie," she writes in "Rage," and one wonders, why not? What evidence is there of any moral superiority in dreams? Similarly, the poet's apparent belief that "light / is an invitation / to happiness" proves unconvincing: one recalls those occasions when light turns into an outright menace. as during the explosion of an atomic bomb. Sometimes, too, endings tend to be facile, a fact suggestive of another, subtler risk of her poetry's ultimately positive attitudes. In "Morning," for example, after a series of effusive musings about a cat in a kitchen, we wind up with "what more could I do with wild words?" and "I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me," lines that merely lounge, limply and senselessly, on the page.

Fortunately, there are few of these slips. "I am trying in my poems to vanish and have the reader be the experiencer," she has said in an interview. "I do not want to be there. It is not even a walk we take together." The aesthetic of impersonality attested to in these remarks, so reminiscent of T. S. Eliot (and also of his notion that only those with a great deal of personality will know how comforting it can be to escape from it), when it is achieved, and Oliver achieves it often, is surely a blessing: it promotes an artistic balance that allows nature and humanity their capacity for evil as well as good. How much intrinsic goodness can there be, after all, at least from the human point of view, in a natural system that annihilates every living creature, or that may have no compunction about blasting away at the planet with fissionable asteroids?

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This section contains 1,263 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Paul Oppenheimer