New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Alicia Ostriker

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
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Critical Review by Alicia Ostriker

SOURCE: A review of Dream Work, in The Nation, Vol. 243, No. 5, August 30, 1986, pp. 148-150.

Ostriker is an American poet, editor, and educator. In the following excerpt, she applauds the lyricism of Dream Work and notes a shift in emphasis from the natural world in Oliver's earlier works to more human-based themes in this collection.

Where [Donald] Hall's line is classically conversational and descriptive, Mary Oliver's is intensely lyrical, flute-like, slender and swift. Where he gathers detail, she will fling gesture. Her poems ride on vivid phrases: "the click of claws, the smack of lips" outside her tent turns out to be a bear's "shambling tonnage" in "The Chance to Love Everything." In a poem about an oncoming storm emblematic of human disaster, "the wind turns / like a hundred black swans / and the first faint noise / begins." She dreams the memory of past lives in the Amazonian landscape of "The River," a poem of the soul's birth and rebirth:

      Once among the reeds I found
      a boat, as thin and lonely
      as a young tree. Nearby
      the forest sizzled with the afternoon rain.

Behind Oliver's New England is Ohio—not the sorry Ohio of James Wright, but a frontier still untouched by cultivation and corruption, where you enter to find "your place / in the family of things," with a real hope of success if you work hard. Woodland and marsh are Oliver's kingdom, animals and plants her kin and alternative selves. There are some dazzling poems of deer, bear, geese, turtle, of trilliums and sunflowers. She is as visionary as Emerson, and is among the few American poets who can describe and transmit ecstasy, while retaining a practical awareness of the world as one of predators and prey, "the rapacious / plucking up the timid / like so many soft jewels."

Quite a number of the poems contain advice that is both right enough and rooted enough to be called (it's an old-fashioned term) wisdom. "Dogfish," the opening poem of Dream Work, describes a dogfish with its chin "rough / as a thousand sharpened nails," coming in on the tide:

     And look! look! look! I think those little fish
     better wake up and dash themselves away
     from the hopeless future that is
     bulging toward them.
     And probably,
     if they don't waste time
     looking for an easier world,
     they can do it.

"One or Two Things" hovers between the mobility of a butterfly and the poet's own immobility, which feels to her like an iron hoof she can't lift from the center of her mind unless she has "an idea." The poem concludes:

     For years and years I struggled
     just to love my life. And then
     the butterfly
     rose, weightless, in the wind.
     "Don't love your life
     too much," it said,
     and vanished
     into the world.

Dream Work, coming after Oliver's 1984 Pulitzer-Prize-winning American Primitive, is an advance on her earlier writing in two ways, which are probably connected. Formally, her verse feels increasingly confident, smoother, and thus bolder—the work of someone able to take risks, take corners faster. At the same time she has moved from the natural world and its desires, the "heaven of appetite" that goes on without much intervention or possibility of control, further into the world of historical and personal suffering. In a half dozen or so poems she sketches a past burdened by trauma and breakdown, the temptation to die, the resolution to recover, the actual work of insisting on sanity: "I began to take apart / the deep stitches / of nightmares." In one poem the poet makes herself walk away, though the night is wild, from voices crying "Mend my life!" In another she is building a larger house, a daily labor.

She confronts as well, steadily, what she cannot change. In the climactic piece of Dream Work, a meditation on the Holocaust, there are two adjacent pictures linked by a half-refrain. "Oh, you never saw / such a good leafy place" introduces an anecdote about meeting a fawn while walking with her dog; neither fawn nor dog knew "what dogs usually do," so they "did a little dance, / they didn't get serious." Then the line "Oh, you never saw such a garden!" brings a new picture, a Jamesian scene of a hundred kinds of flowers, cool shade, garden furniture and a man peacefully finishing lunch and lifting wine in a glass of "real crystal"—but "It is the face of Mengele." At the end of this poem the people have gone and the doe enters, sniffing the air where her fawn has been: "Then she knew everything." In her own garden of knowledge Mary Oliver moves by instinct, faith and determination. She is among our finest poets, and still growing.

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This section contains 771 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Alicia Ostriker