New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Sandra M. Gilbert

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
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Critical Review by Sandra M. Gilbert

SOURCE: "Six Poets in Search of a History," in Poetry, Vol. 150, No. 2, May, 1987, pp. 113-16.

Gilbert is an American editor, educator, and critic. In the following review, she applauds Oliver for mining the natural world to "learn the lessons of survival."

Compared to [Gail] Mazur's work, Mary Oliver's poems are deliberately impersonal, almost anti-confessional. Yet she too is haunted by history, by the private history of the oppressive father who is the subject of "Rage" ("in your dreams you have sullied and murdered, / and dreams do not lie") and by the public history of the holocaust that is the subject of "1945–1985: Poem for the Anniversary," the history of Germany's "iron claw, which won't / ever be forgotten, which won't / ever be understood, but which did, / slowly, for years, scrape across Europe." Unlike the other poets in this group, however, Oliver finds a way to escape the rigors of human chronicles through attention to natural history. In doing so, she follows in the footsteps of such precursors as D. H. Lawrence, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop, all of whom, at various times and in different modes, celebrated the intransigent otherness of birds, beasts, and flowers—of moose and jerboa, of snake and pomegranate and tortoise—in order to learn the lessons of survival taught by what Moore called "the simplified creature."

To my mind, Oliver is the most skillful of the six poets I am treating here: she is a writer who is never less than expert in her crafting of verse and her precision of language. Once in a while, the sense of structure that invariably leads her to point poems toward neat (and often brilliant) closures betrays her into excessive abstraction, even sententiousness, as in the ending of "Starfish," where "I lay on the rocks, reaching / into the darkness, learning / little by little to love / our only world." But for the most part, her poems are wonderfully shapely, and there appears to be a connection between the aesthetic attentiveness that produces these elegantly articulated forms and their scrupulous anchoring in natural facts, in keen awareness of the history of lives that are other than human.

This is not to say, however, that Oliver is in any sense anti- or inhuman; on the contrary, like Mazur's, her voice is warmly human and open, even when, like Barnard, she is confronting the icy mystery of the constellations. I quote her "Orion" in its entirety:

      I love Orion, his fiery body, his ten stars,
      his flaring points of reference, his shining dogs.
      "It is winter," he says.
      "We must eat," he says. Our gloomy
      and passionate teacher.
                            Miles below
      in the cold woods, with the mouse and the owl,
      with the clearness of water sheeted and hidden,
      with the reason for the wind forever a secret,
      he descends and sits with me, his voice
      like the snapping of bones.
                                       Behind him,
      everything is so black and unclassical; behind him
      I don't know anything, not even
      my own mind.

Still, impressive as this poem is, the pieces that impress me the most in Oliver's new collection are the ones in which—like Lawrence, Moore, and Bishop—she meditates on the alternative consciousness, the being in a perpetual present, that might liberate the lives of plants and animals from what human beings experience as the burden of the past.

In "The Turtle," for instance, Oliver broods (as Lawrence once did) on the reproductive imperative that drives the shelled creature, laying her eggs:

     She's only filled
     with an old blind wish.
     It isn't even hers but came to her
     in the rain or the soft wind,
     which is a gate through which her life keeps

Again, in "Landscape," this poet looks at crows who

     … break off from the rest of the darkness
     and burst up into the sky—as though
     all night they had thought of what they would like
     their lives to be, and imagined
     their strong, thick wings.

And in "Black Snakes," she engages, as Lawrence did in "Snake," the fearful yet historically sacred otherness of the reptile. Looking with Lawrentian awe at two terrifying snakes, Oliver confesses that

     … Once I had steadied,
     I thought: how valiant!
     and I wished
     I had come softly, I wished
     they were my dark friends.

It is, of course, daring, indeed risky, to rewrite Lawrence like this, as risky as it is for Mazur to rewrite Lowell. But to Oliver's credit she mostly brings the project off, perhaps because she not only revises but reshapes Lawrence, drawing on his poetical honesty while repudiating his political eccentricity. "The Sunflowers," the closing poem in her collection, moralizes delicately on the other history we can learn from natural history. Beginning with a casual, friendly invitation—"Come with me / into the field of sunflowers. / Their faces are burnished disks, / their dry spines // creak like ship masts"—the piece moves toward a conclusion that summarizes the philosophy of history which might be said to underlie Dream Work:

      Don't be afraid
       to ask them questions!
          Their bright faces,
      which follow the sun,
       will listen, and all
         those rows of seeds—
          each one a new life!—
      hope for a deeper acquaintance;
        each of them, though it stands
         in a crowd of many,
           like a separate universe,
      is lonely, the long work
       of turning their lives
          into a celebration
            is not easy. Come
      and let us talk with those modest faces,
       the simple garments of leaves,
         the coarse roots in the earth
           so uprightly burning.

Of course, Blake stands behind this poem, too, Blake whose sunflower was "weary of time" and yearned "after that sweet golden clime / Where the traveller's journey is done." But for Oliver, evidently, there is no chance of the journey being "done"; the journey is a difficult voyage toward celebration, and history is the history of survival. Rather than being "weary of time," Mary Oliver implies, we should, with Mary Barnard, be glad of time's dispensations and benedictions—blessings which allow us to reimagine history not as a nightmare from which we are trying to awake but as a story of "coarse roots in the earth / so uprightly burning."

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This section contains 974 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Sandra M. Gilbert