New and Selected Poems | Critical Essay by Vicki Graham

This literature criticism consists of approximately 20 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
This section contains 5,833 words
(approx. 20 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Vicki Graham

Critical Essay by Vicki Graham

SOURCE: "'Into the Body of Another': Mary Oliver and the Poetics of Becoming Other," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 352-72.

In the following essay, Graham discusses Oliver's (and by extension, her readers') ability to "become" the various natural bodies she writes about.

We belong to the moon, says Mary Oliver, and "the most / thoughtful among us dreams / of hurrying down … into the body of another." We dream, we long, and some of us believe that we can step outside of ourselves and enter the body of another. But Western culture discourages these yearnings and demands individualism and the formation of strong ego boundaries and stable identities. Unlike the traveller of Leslie Marmon Silko's "Story from Bear Country," we do not hear the bear's call; we do not see our "footprints / in the sand" become bear prints, nor do we see fur cover our bodies, "dark shaggy and thick." Yet we are conscious, too, of our potential not just to cross the boundaries between ourselves and others, but to be divided within ourselves. We encounter a variety of theories—feminist, psychoanalytic, cultural—that tell us identity is multiple and the boundaries of the self are unstable.

"Pull yourself together," my mother used to say, and I would grope wildly, hoping to catch even one of the selves that spun around me. But I have never been able to pull myself together, and works of art that tempt me to drop the fiction of singularity and invite me to enter the body of another fascinate me. Mary Oliver's American Primitive is one such work. The poems in this collection offer many bodies for us to inhabit; we can become, by turns, bear, fish, whale, swamp, and Pan. We can run with the fox, fly with the owl, dig with the mole, and finally, losing all outward form, dissolve into the totality of nature.

Oliver's celebration of dissolution into the natural world troubles some critics: her poems flirt dangerously with romantic assumptions about the close association of women with nature that many theorists claim put the woman writer at risk. But for Oliver, immersion in nature is not death: language is not destroyed and the writer is not silenced. To merge with the nonhuman is to acknowledge the self's mutability and multiplicity, not to lose subjectivity. But few feminists have wholeheartedly appreciated Oliver's work, and though some critics have read her poems as revolutionary reconstructions of the female subject, others remain skeptical "that identification with nature can empower women." [Graham attributes this quote to Diane S. Bonds in "The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver."]

Despite this implicitly proscriptive criticism, the desire to immerse oneself in and become part of the natural world persists in women's poetry and novels. Twenty years of feminist, deconstructive, and linguistic theory have not weaned writers like Oliver, Marilynne Robinson, and Susan Griffin (to name just a few) from what skeptics might label a naive belief in the possibility of intimate contact with the non-linguistic world of nature and a confidence in the potential of language to represent that experience. The persistence of this belief suggests to me that we might try reading these works differently. Rather than viewing them as dangerously regressive or as subtextually emancipatory, we might read—them as descriptions and enactments of what Walter Benjamin calls the "mimetic faculty."

According to Benjamin, the mimetic faculty is one of our most precious gifts. Important as sight or hearing, our capacity to mime, Benjamin explains, surpasses nature's, and is directly linked to our cultural activities:

Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man's. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.

The speakers in Oliver's poems not only exhibit a "powerful compulsion … to become and behave like something else"; they also act out the process of becoming something else, inviting readers to join them.

In "The Mimetic Faculty," Benjamin asserts that the human capacity to mime has eroded in recent times, but in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" he suggests that modern technology, particularly the moving picture camera, can help us recover that capacity, bringing us into a new kind of perceptual contact with the world through mechanical reproduction. He notes that "every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction," and he suggests that moving pictures can stimulate the "optical unconscious," leading to increased perception. As Michael Taussig shows in Mimesis and Alterity, Benjamin's hopes were not realized. Poetry such as Oliver's suggests that this need to get hold of something—to touch it, taste it, smell it—has intensified rather than diminished in the last sixty years as technology moves us further and further from actual realities into virtual realities. Despite the stern schooling of postmodern theory, we continue to yearn, as Michael Taussig puts it, "for the true real." And what better way to get close to "the real"—which for Oliver means the natural world—than to become it through mimicry?

"Nature," claims Benjamin, "creates similarities." But so do poets. Word by word, image by image, they exercise their mimetic faculties, simulating the texture and weight of an object, the tenor and color of a feeling, the timbre of a voice. Words make copies of the world, but to say, merely, that these copies are constructions is to close discussion prematurely, as Taussig makes clear in his introduction to Mimesis and Alterity. Aware though we may be of "the constructed and arbitrary character of our practices" our mimetic faculty saves us, "suturing nature to artifice and bringing sensuousness to sense by means of what was once called sympathetic magic, granting the copy the character and power of the original, the representation the power of the represented." Similarly, to dismiss poems that celebrate merging with nature as naive projections is to ignore something crucial about the magical capabilities of language. Taussig offers a far more positive way to describe what Oliver is doing. In short, she is "miming the real into being."

But how does one mime the real into being? Taussig provides an answer immediately applicable to Oliver's poetry. Elaborating on Benjamin's theories, Taussig links mimesis to the sympathetic magic employed by healers and seers, and describes what Frazer distinguishes as the two classes of magic: contagious and imitative. Contact or contagious magic works because, as Frazer says, "things which have been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance." Imitative magic works because "like produces like," or, as Taussig explains, the "copy, in magical practice, affect[s] the original to such a degree that the representation shares in or acquires the properties of the represented." Taussig suggests that often contact and copying overlap (as in an effigy made out of the effluvia of the victim), working together to conjure the presence of or to affect the other.

In Oliver's American Primitive, evoking and then becoming another depends on direct, sensuous contact with the other, on using the body rather than the mind to apprehend it. Over and over the speaker of Oliver's poems reminds herself to look, to touch, to taste, to see, and to smell. Only by yielding to her senses can she get close to the "real"—wild plums, egrets, the first light of morning. Contact leads to contagion; infected by what she has touched or tasted, she begins to copy it spontaneously, "miming [it] into being" through ecstatic identification. Oliver's poems allow us to trace this movement from sensuous contact to copying to becoming, and, in the process, offer a way back to nature, to the "real," from which language separates us. Because many of the poems are spoken in the second person, they also invite us to step outside the boundaries we draw around ourselves and become, not just another, but many others. The possibility of identifying or coming into contact with a "true real" is, of course, debatable, and Oliver's sense of merging with nature is shaped by her culture and by the language she uses to describe her experience, as I show later in this paper through a brief examination of two of Leslie Marmon Silko's poems. But the ways that we use language to describe the experience of stepping outside ourselves and getting to the real are worth studying; as contemporary enactments of sympathetic magic, the poems of American Primitive offer a chance to examine as well as to participate in the process of miming the self "into the body of another."

For Oliver, becoming another begins with longing, a longing often tinged with sorrow, as though Oliver recognized and accepted the difficulties involved. American Primitive is permeated with verbs of desire; the speakers of the poems "want," "dream of," "strive," "long," and "cry for" contact with the natural world, but all too often that contact is blocked. In "White Night," for example, the speaker longs to become one with the "black / and silky currents" of the moonlit pond and dreads the coming of day which will draw her back into the human world with its "difficult / and beautiful / hurricane of light." Half dreaming, she floats into the white night and wants, before day interrupts, to mingle herself with its dark waters:

       I want to flow out
          across the mother
    of all waters,
      I want to lose myself
        on the black
          and silky currents.

The speaker is caught between two worlds: the day world of language and logic and the night world of sensation and dissolution.

In "The Sea," the speaker remembers and longs to return to a pre-rational, pre-human state of existence: "Stroke by / stroke my / body remembers that life …" Though the poem never clearly defines "that life," the images suggest that the speaker imagines herself as a pre-human, aquatic life-form or as an embryo arrested in the fish-stage of human embryonic development. Her "body cries for / the lost parts of itself—fins, gills":

      What a spillage
       of nostalgia pleads
         from the very bones! how
  they long to give up the long trek inland …

Here, as in "White Night," the speaker longs to escape the difficulties of the rational and "to give up the long trek" towards becoming human, but remains fixed in the rational, human world.

Oliver habitually describes the desire to become another as originating in the body—it is the bones that long—but over and over, the mind—"what we know"—counters the body's impulse, bringing the speaker back to self-consciousness. Poems such as "Blossom" and "The Plum Trees" confront this battle between mind and body head on. "Blossom" describes the effect of spring and the moon on the body; aroused by the awakening of the natural world—the "frogs shouting / their desire"—the speaker longs to join in; But the poem is structured as a series of oppositions: "what we know"—that we are mortal and yet that "we are more / than blood"—is posed first against "what / we long for: joy / before death" and then against the "thrust / from the root / of the body." "The Plum Trees" works from the assumption that the mind (sense) and the senses oppose one another, but it reverses the traditional hierarchy, asking that we favor the body rather than the mind and give ourselves up to our senses:

      There's nothing
      so sensible as sensual inundation. Joy
      is a taste before
      it's anything else …
          ...
      the only way
      to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it
 
      into the body first, like small
      wild plums.

Oliver insists that we return to the physical world, begin with the body rather than the mind, plums rather than ideas. Though the poem is almost didactic in its assertions, and its play on "sensible" is predictable, it illustrates, through sensuous images, Oliver's insistence on the body as the basis for abstract expression.

Letting her body rather than her mind guide her gives Oliver the contact with the natural world that she craves, but poems such as "The Plum Trees" do not examine the damaging effects of oppositional thinking. Split into a rigid duality, the self is not porous; it cannot take the other into itself nor can it flow outside its own boundaries. Privileging the body reinforces oppositional thinking and blocks rather than enables immersion in the other. In "Humpbacks," for example, evading the mind leads to splitting the body itself into matter and spirit, as though oppositions were endlessly nested one in the other:

     … nothing will ever dazzle you
     like the dreams of your body,
 
     its spirit
     longing to fly while the dead-weight bones
 
     toss their dark mane and hurry
     back into the fields of glittering fire …

Again Oliver privileges the physical over the non-physical—the body's spirit "longs," while the bones simply "hurry back"—but now she has caught the body up in oppositional thinking; fissured, it plays out the original opposition between mind and body that Oliver wished to escape.

Occasionally, however, the natural world startles Oliver into forgetting that mind and body are split, and for a moment they move together. In "Tasting the Wild Grapes," the joy of seeing the fox fills the speaker and she forgets not just the split between mind and body, but the gap between words and their referents. Seeing and naming become simultaneous acts:

       … And forgetting
       everything you will leap to name it
       as though for the first time, your lit blood
       rushing not to a word but a sound
       small-boned, thin-faced, in a hurry
       lively as the dark thorns of the wild grapes
       on the unsuspecting tongue.

The body, the "lit blood," not the mind, leaps to name the fox. A sound bursts from the body, but the sound is visual. The word "fox" is not onomatopoeic; rather, it looks like the fox, "small-boned, thin-faced, in a hurry." Sound becomes first visual, then tactile and glossal, "lively as the dark thorns of the wild grapes on the unsuspecting tongue." Taste, sound, sight, and touch merge into a word—"The fox! The fox!"—and the poem suggests that language comes from the body in imitation of the sensuous qualities of the thing perceived, not from a conscious decision to name. As the senses overlap, the distinction between sensuous and intellectual perception blurs, and the opposition between mind and body dissolves.

Once mind and body stop fighting, direct, sensuous contact with the other becomes possible, allowing an exchange of energy which leads to identification and then merging. In "The Fish," Oliver describes the effects of contact through eating. Enchanted by the beauty of the first fish she ever caught, startled by its refusal, at first, to lie down in the pail and die, the speaker cleans and eats the fish. Eating transforms her:

     Now the sea
     is in me: I am the fish, the fish
     glitters in me.

Touching first lips, tongue, and throat, then entering the stomach and the bloodstream, the fish contacts every part of the speaker's body, and she not only becomes the fish, but the sea that it swims in. The poem suggests that this transformation is permanent: "now the sea / is in me" (emphasis mine), but subsequent poems in the collection suggest that this transformation, like the others, is temporary, and will have to be repeated.

"The Sea" describes the magical effects of contact through immersion of the other in the self; "Crossing the Swamp" describes the opposite, contact and transformation through immersion of the self in the other. The poem opens with a description of a swamp and the speaker's arduous trek across it. She enters the

       … endless
            wet thick
              cosmos, the center
                 of everything—the nugget
       of dense sap, branching
          vines, the dark burred
            faintly belching
              bogs.

The speaker wallows, slips, scrambles for a "foothold, fingerhold, / mindhold over / such slick crossings." But here, the mind cannot get a hold and does not interrupt the process of physical contact with and immersion in the other. She sinks into:

      the black, slack
         earthsoup. I feel
           not wet so much as
            painted and glittered
    with the fat grassy
      mires, the rich
        and succulent marrows
         of earth—a poor
      dry stick given
#x00A0;       one more chance …

Not wet, but painted, the speaker becomes a canvas. Covered with ooze, the swamp's effluvia, she first represents the swamp, as though she were a painting. Then she becomes the swamp, taking on its power with its image. Transformed, the "poor / dry stick" of her body sprouts, branches, and buds like the swamp whose life force it has acquired.

Contact leads to transformation, but it also leads to an even more powerful way of merging with nature—copying and taking on the power of the original. Several poems in American Primitive enact this imitative magic—in "Music," for example, the speaker becomes Pan, and in "Humpbacks" she becomes a whale—but the most interesting examples are the poems which describe the process of imitating and becoming a bear. These poems form a sequence, moving from an indirect identification with a bear's essence to spontaneous, unmeditated, almost "natural" imitation of and entering into the body of the bear. "August," the first poem in the collection, introduces the bear through a synecdoche, subtly setting in motion a current that runs through the rest of the collection. The poem begins with a description of picking and eating blackberries; the speaker is

     thinking
 
     of nothing, cramming
     the black honey of summer
     into my mouth; all day my body
 
     accepts what it is.

Because she is not thinking, the speaker almost seems to be part of the natural world, to be more animal than human, and her "body / accepts what it is." "Accepts" can be read both literally—the body is content with itself—and figuratively—the body ingests (accepts) itself. The blackberries she eats, then, become emblems for the self as nature; taking them into her body reinforces and makes physical the connection she already has with the natural world. The poem ends with a reference to the bear's shadowy presence:

      … In the dark
      creeks that run by there is
      this thick paw of my life darting among
 
      the black bells.

Here, the bear is not simply another creature of the natural world; rather, it is the "thick paw of [her] life," and has special significance for her, a significance that Taussig's discussion of the Cuna belief in two worlds, an original and a copy, can help explain. According to Taussig, the Cuna believe in an "invisible counterpart" of the world we see, an "alter reality" for "all objects, animals, and places in the concrete world" which "is the creative life source of the object." The Cuna see this "spirit [as] superior to and causal of the concrete manifestation." Though Taussig questions, "which comes first, spirit or substance, original or copy?" he suggests that two worlds exist simultaneously, an original and a copy. In the last lines of "August," Oliver, too, senses the presence of this "alter reality." For her, the spirit copy of her "life" takes the form of a bear, a presence that is "superior to and causal of the concrete manifestation." The presence of the bear in "August" suggests that the transformation of the speaker into a bear in later poems is natural; her own spirit copy, in the form of a bear, is already guiding her.

In "Honey at the Table," the next bear poem in the collection, contact leads to copying, but the movement from one to the other is so fluid that it is difficult to pinpoint where contact ends and copying begins. Because the poem is spoken in the second person, it includes the reader in the process, inviting him or her to partake of the honey: "It fills you with the soft / essence of vanished flowers." Honey, like the fish, has the power to transform the speaker. But the honey itself metamorphoses, and starts to resemble, as the speaker eats, one of the "dark creeks" mentioned in "August":

      … it becomes
      a trickle sharp as a hair that you follow
      from the honey pot over the table
      and out the door and over the ground,
      and all the while it thickens,
 
      grows deeper and wider, edged
      with pine boughs and wet boulders.

From flowers to trickle to creek, the honey of this poem calls up the bear before mentioning it. Honey also acts as a metonym for the bear; to taste it is to taste the bear. The transformation to bear occurs almost imperceptibly, the space between the third and fourth stanzas: the speaker has been following the honey-creek,

     … edged
     with pine boughs and wet boulders,
     pawprints of bobcat and bear until
 
     deep in the forest you
     shuffle up some tree, you rip the bark,
 
     you float into and swallow the dripping combs,
     bits of tree, crushed bees—a taste
     composed of everything lost, in which everything
     lost is found.

No longer quite human, the speaker "shuffle[s] up some tree … rip[s] the bark." She becomes a bear in a tree eating honey, and has found everything she has lost. "Lost" here echoes "lost" in "The Sea," where the speaker's body "cries for / the lost parts of itself." There, the speaker longs for a pre-human state which she cannot regain because she is blocked by the opposition between mind and body; here, she regains her spirit copy—the bear—through imitation, first by eating honey, then by shuffling up a tree and ripping the bark.

"Happiness," a bear poem that appears several pages later in the collection, sets up, in its first lines, a clear division between the speaker and the "she-bear," the watcher and actor: "In the afternoon I watched / the she-bear; she was looking / for the secret bin of sweetness." But the poem, which starts out matter-of-factly, veers suddenly into a description of the close tracking of a bear, raising questions about who this speaker is and where she is positioned:

     Black block of gloom, she climbed down
     tree after tree and shuffled on
     through the woods. And then
     she found it! The honey-house deep
     as heartwood, and dipped into it
     among the swarming bees.

Oliver as observer seems to have inserted herself into the natural world, getting closer to and becoming more intimately connected with the observed than is humanly possible, as though the bear she watches is herself. Telling the story of the bear does more than evoke it; it also allows the speaker to identify with it, a process which resembles Taussig's account of the healer who evokes the spirit copy through detailed description. According to Taussig, detailed descriptions give one power over the thing described. He quotes the ethnographer Joel Sherzer: "The subsequent narration of actions and events, addressed to the spirit world, causes their simultaneous occurrence in the mirror image physical world." Taussig then exclaims, "Was ever Frazer's mimetic magic better expressed—except that the simulacrum here is created with words, not objects!" He goes on to say that "the spirits find pleasure in being told about themselves in a detailed and poetic way" and he cites chants in which "the chanter chants himself into the scene."

In "Happiness" Oliver creates a bear out of words. In "The Honey Tree," the final bear poem in the collection, she chants herself into the scene, acting out what she claims to have observed:

     And so at last I climbed
     the honey tree, ate
     chunks of pure light, ate
     the bodies of bees that could not
     get out of my way, ate
     the dark hair of the leaves,
     the rippling bark,
     the heartwood. Such
     frenzy!

The poem at once continues and revises "Happiness." The opening line, "And so at last," suggests that the poem takes up a prior activity, and the poem as a whole repeats many of the images of "Happiness": in both, there is a frenzied tearing of bark and eating of honey. Both climax in an ecstatic moment of identification—the bear with the bees, the speaker with the bear. The bear hums and the speaker sings. The sequence of these two poems suggests that the detailing of the bear's activity in the earlier poem allows Oliver to mime it herself in the next, the first activity leading naturally to the second.

The last poem of the collection, "The Gardens," moves from identification with the individual elements of nature—swamp, fish, bear, etc.—to identification with the totality of nature. Part one opens with an Edenic world, "the good / garden of leaves," where the speaker wanders, seeking "another / creature like me," and whispering, "Where are you?" It ends with the speaker's entrance into another world, as she leaves the "good garden" for the "garden / of fire." In the first lines of part two, the speaker is near to, but not yet in direct contact with the other she sought earlier:

     This skin you wear
     so neatly, in which
     you settle
     so brightly
     on the summer grass, how
     shall I know it?

She moves slowly through the garden, seeking, then gradually begins to understand that the contact she desires can be achieved by touching anything—everything—because the one she desires is everywhere:

     How
     shall I touch you
     unless it is
     everywhere?
     I begin
     here and there,
     finding you,
     the heart within you,
     and the animal,
     and the voice.

The last lines of the poem suggest that the "you" is not simply another person, but the ultimate Other, the natural world, personified, and this Other is everywhere; the speaker "trek [s] / wherever you take me, / the boughs of your body / leading deeper into the trees." This poem, like "Happiness" and "The Honey Tree," climaxes with another ecstatic moment, but unlike these poems, "The Gardens" ends just before the speaker merges with the other. We leave her still moving towards it:

     the shouting,
     the answering, the rousing
     great run toward the interior,
     the unseen, the unknowable
     center.

Clearly, Oliver meant to close the poem before this final merging; if the center is unseen and unknowable, it also must be outside of language.

American Primitive ends with fulfillment; the blank space at the end of "The Gardens" implies that Oliver has lost herself in the "body of another." But this loss of self is never permanent. Oliver becomes, in turn, a bear, a whale, a fish, but, as each poem and each subsequent transformation suggests, she returns again to human consciousness and must repeat the process of becoming another over and over. Rooted in the binary oppositions that structure Western thinking, Oliver can never fully escape the teaching of her culture that the mind is divided from the body and identity depends on keeping intact the boundaries between the self and others. Each of the selves Oliver becomes in this collection is self-contained and separate. A bear, like a human, has its own boundaries, and becoming bear as Oliver understands this process involves moving back and forth across the boundaries between herself and the bear rather than dissolving the boundaries themselves.

Oliver's desire to become other through mimesis conflicts with a culturally instilled need to establish a single, unified self, but Oliver neither faces this problem head on nor articulates it clearly as another poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, does. Rilke, too, longs, to get inside the body of another creature, to "let [himself] precisely into the dog's center, the point from which it begins to be a dog, the place in it where God, as it were, would have sat down for a moment when the dog was finished." But unlike Oliver, Rilke articulates the consequences of staying there: "For awhile you can endure being inside the dog; you just have to be alert and jump out in time, before its environment has completely enclosed you, since otherwise you would simply remain the dog in the dog and be lost for everything else." It is that "everything else" that Oliver does not want to be lost for. She cannot resign herself to being just "the dog in the dog" because this would mean she could never be a bear or a fish. Giving up human subjectivity would mean, at least as Oliver perceives it, giving up the ability to mime herself into the body of another. It would also mean giving up self-consciousness, knowing who and what she is, as well as the ability to remember and write about the experience. Oliver's poems suggest that we need language and self-consciousness in order to experience stepping outside of language and the self. Over and over, Oliver lets herself into the whale, the fish, the bear, the Other, and over and over she jumps out in time, clinging to her humanity, to her individuality, and to her sense of the self as a unified subject with distinct boundaries.

Oliver's acceptance of this image of the self shapes her perception of what it means to become another. A different image of the self might have led her to a very different perception of this process. To clarify this point, I would like to turn briefly to some passages from Paula Gunn Allen's The Sacred Hoop and to two poems by Leslie Marmon Silko. According to Allen, Native Americans focus less on the individual than Westerners do; they see the individual as part of a whole which includes not just the community, but the natural world and the cosmic. All life is important; no hierarchies exist to separate humans from or elevate them above the rest of creation: "Tribal people allow all animals, vegetables, and minerals (the entire biota, in short) the same or even greater privileges than humans." Allen goes on to explain that

The American Indian sees all creatures as relatives … as offspring of the Great Mystery, as cocreators, as children of our mother, and as necessary parts of an ordered, balanced, and living whole. This concept applies to what non-Indian Americans think of as the supernatural, and it applies as well to the more tangible (phenomenal) aspects of the universe. American Indian thought makes no such dualistic division, nor does it draw a hard and fast line between what is material and what is spiritual….

Allen's description suggests that the contact and exchange between the self and nature that Oliver longs for so urgently is part of the everyday lives of Native Americans because they do not separate the human world from the natural.

Speaking from her Laguna Pueblo perspective, Leslie Marmon Silko examines specific occurrences of this contact and exchange between human and non-human and the effects on the individual and the community. In her poems "Story from Bear Country" and "He was a small child," she describes what happens to people who join the bears. Because her culture thinks differently from Western culture about the construction of the self and the relationship between the self and others, Silko's account differs radically from Oliver's.

In "Story from Bear Country," Silko speaks to a solitary traveller, telling him that when he walks in bear country, he will know, and will hear the bears calling. She tells him to listen; dares him to follow; but warns him:

     The problem is
     you will never want to return
     Their beauty will overcome your memory.

If he does follow the call, the "bear priests" will try to get him back, but they may not succeed:

     When they call
     faint memories
     will writhe around your heart
     and startle you with their distance.

The poem ends with a dare:

     Go ahead
     turn around
     see the shape
     of your footprints
     in the sand.

The poem is followed by another bear poem, this time told in third person. It describes a child who wanders away from his family and joins the bears. The family calls a medicine man who knows "how to call the child back again." "They couldn't just grab the child"; rather, the medicine man had to bring him back "step by step." However, the child "wasn't quite the same / after that / not like the other children." This same poem appears in Silko's novel Ceremony, and is used to suggest why the medicine man's helper, Shush (which means bear), is "strange." Betonie, the medicine man, then explains that "it is very peaceful with the bears; the people say that's the reason human beings seldom return."

The attitudes embedded in Silko's work differ significantly from Oliver's. The loss of the traveller and the child is a communal rather than a personal loss; in both poems, it is not the person who becomes a bear who is missing something, but the people he left behind. Bringing him back also involves the community, whose presence is part of the ceremony. Second, the person who has gone to join the bears does not want to return; he must be coaxed back carefully, and if he returns, he will be altered. Third, there doesn't seem to be any question at all about the possibility of joining the bears. One simply answers a call; there is no yearning, no searching, as we see in so many of Oliver's poems.

Both Oliver and Silko assume that contact between the human and non-human world is possible, but the way that each experiences and describes this contact differs. At first, Silko's poems seem to suggest that becoming a bear means giving up human consciousness entirely: "Human beings who live with the bears … are naked and not conscious of being different from their bear relatives." But Allen's description of Native American culture suggests that Western concepts of individual human consciousness are not applicable to Native American culture, where rigid distinctions between the self and others, the human and non-human, do not exist. Since all creatures are related and the boundaries between them are fluid, there is a continuous interplay and communication between the human and non-human. Human consciousness is not rigidly separated from other consciousness. For Oliver, the distinction between human and non-human never ceases to exist. Miming and becoming another is a willed artistic act that carries her across boundaries that she nonetheless remains conscious of.

Drawn though she is to the possibility of losing herself in the body of another, Oliver comes to her writing with her cultural assumptions about the self and individuality intact, assumptions that are highly valued and fostered, particularly in American culture. Thinking oppositionally, Oliver sees the boundaries between human and non-human as something that can be crossed but not erased. She perceives nature always as an other which she elevates over the human. The chief value of "entering the body of another" lies, for Oliver, in the temporary loss of human consciousness. She wants to cast off what writers like Silko and Allen see as part of creation, something that cannot be cast off without destroying the balance of the whole.

Oliver's American Primitive is "primitive" in that Oliver has introduced into her poetry the sympathetic magic that Taussig finds in "primitive" cultures, a magic that allows an exchange between things that imitate or have been in contact with each other. Through contact and copying, Oliver envisions and then creates a cosmic order in which she can cross the boundaries between human and non-human and become another, at least momentarily. Oliver does with her imagination what Benjamin thought the moving picture camera could do and what Taussig shows that sympathetic magic can do. Through her writing she can "get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction" ("The Work of Art"). She immerses herself, however briefly, in the natural world, perceives it sensuously, and becomes part of it. The poems she writes allow us to become part of this world with her, letting us cross the boundaries we draw around ourselves and flowing, for a few moments, "into the body of another."

(read more)

This section contains 5,833 words
(approx. 20 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Vicki Graham