New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Richard Tillinghast

This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
This section contains 482 words
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Critical Review by Richard Tillinghast

SOURCE: "Stars and Departures, Hummingbirds and Statues," in Poetry, Vol. 166, No. 5, August, 1995, pp. 288-90.

Tillinghast is an American poet and educator. In the following review, he praises Oliver for handling "description with a satisfying, jeweler's precision" in White Pine.

Reading Mary Oliver's new book, White Pine, I was reminded of the cover of the old Petit Larousse Illustre, which shows a girl blowing on a white dandelion blossom, with the caption, "Je sème à tout vent." Oliver's poetry, pure as the cottony seeds of the dandelion, floats above and around the schools and controversies of contemporary American poetry. Her familiarity with the natural world has an uncomplicated, nineteenth-century feeling. In the poem "Work," for instance, Pasture Pond "had lain in the dark, all night, / catching the rain / on its broad back." She handles description with a satisfying, jeweler's precision. Two chicks in the poem "Hummingbirds" are pictured ready "to fly, for the first time, / in their sea-green helmets, / with brisk, metallic tails."

In the first poem quoted above, the poet's own work, given a deliberately feminine connotation in the way it is described, "with the linen of words / and the pins of punctuation," is contrasted to the serene obliviousness of the pond:

     all day I hang out
     over a desk
 
     grinding my teeth
     staring.
     Then I sleep.

In "Hummingbirds" Mary Oliver depicts her comings and goings, the flux of her emotional life, with an almost mythic but still light-fingered touch that, mysteriously, acknowledges a strange kinship with the birds she has just encountered:

      Alone,
      in the crown of the tree,
 
      I went to China,
      I went to Prague;
      I died, and was born in the spring;
      I found you, and loved you, again.

The last quatrain of the poem summarizes almost offhandedly:

     Likely I visited all
     the shimmering, heart-stabbing
     questions without answers
     before I climbed down.

Oliver's innocent-looking adverb, "likely," which introduces the poem's delicate endgame, slyly and modestly undercuts the hovering, balancing play of emotional coloring between "shimmering" and "heart-stabbing."

Though Oliver unapologetically focuses the only awareness she possesses—i.e., her human awareness—on the natural world, nature is not, in the jargon of the day anthropomorphized in the world of White Pine. Its otherness is acknowledged. "Toad," for instance, depicts the odd spectacle, which somehow escapes being comical, of the poet squatting down beside a toad she encounters on a walk, and talking to him:

I began to talk. I talked about summer, and about time. The pleasures of eating, the terrors of the night. About this cup we call a life. About happiness. And how good it feels, the heat of the sun between the shoulder blades.

The toad becomes an emblem of a sort of dumb grace that belongs to the world of inarticulate creatures—lacking the complexity of human awareness, immune to its sorrows:

He might have been Buddha—did not move, blink or frown, not a tear fell from those gold-rimmed eyes as the refined anguish of language passed over him.

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This section contains 482 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Richard Tillinghast