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Critical Essay by Jean B. Alford
SOURCE: "The Poetry of Mary Oliver: Modern Renewal Through Mortal Acceptance," in Pembroke Magazine, Vol. 20, 1988, pp. 283-88.
In the following essay, Alford discusses the positive, life-affirming aspects that Oliver's poetry uncovers in nature.
Mary Oliver is a distinctive poet in the fashionably surreal and escapist world of contemporary verse. The message and craft of her poetry are valued by peers and critics alike despite her unfortunate neglect as potential critical review. According to Hyatt H. Waggoner, she lacks the representative qualities associated with contemporary aesthetic values. However, her real worth as a modern poet lies in these very atypical qualities. Representative contemporary poets gloomily doom modern man and his life in apprehensive responses to present political, social, economic, and moral uncertainties. Oliver instead passionately affirms their survival. Within them both, she exalts the natural—an inherently renewing and regenerative potential.
The theme of Oliver's poetry is revitalization. Through self-conscious denial, modern man must reconnect his roots with the natural cycles and processes of all life. As Oliver's poems engross the reader in a fully sensual union with nature, she urges him to recognize the universal joys, pains, beauties, and terrors experienced in such connectedness. She then celebrates his transforming potential—the loving acceptance of his mortality in the human and natural worlds.
Oliver's poetic technique will not be examined in this discussion. It is important to note, however, that it too is in keeping with her different contemporary stance. Rather than adopt the surreal escapism and the personal confessions of many peers, she uses the traditional lyric form to embrace her readers emotionally and intellectually. Her meticulous craft and her skilled use of language create poems that are seemingly effortless, sensual delights. She combines rich, musical lyrics with swift, taut meters; she uses illuminating images that seldom startle; and she produces a confident, yet graceful and serene, tone. According to Anthony Manousos, Oliver's craft is deceptively simple—an emotional intensity that speaks clearly and directly to the reader. More appropriately, James Dickey characterizes it as remarkable, creating richly complex poetry without throwing complexities in the way of the reader.
An analysis of Oliver's poetic message reveals that she begins her positive affirmation by seeking to reconnect modern man to his roots in the natural processes of all life. According to Waggoner, rather than despairing over the current separation and alienation of contemporary life, Oliver searches memory and present experiences. Through the world of nature, she finds those intrinsic meanings and values which can be retrieved, embraced anew, and celebrated in the modern world. To Manousos, then, her exploration of the natural world and its cycles elicits concurrent themes analogous to those which are deepest and most enduring in human experience.
In Twelve Moons, especially, Oliver celebrates the natural cycles of birth, decay, and death as flourishing in all life. More important, though, she reveals the companion dreams that motivate and drive the mortal existence. In "The Fish," Oliver compares the salmon's exhaustive and painful battle upstream to reach her "old birth pond" with the efforts of "any woman come to term, caught / as mortality drives triumphantly toward / immortality / the shaken bones like/ cages of fire". "Stark County Holidays" describes a Christmas family reunion as the narrator's awareness of her mother's "wintering" decay; though the musical dream and desire persist, the "stiffened hands" on the "blasted scales" ensure that seasonally "the promise fades." In "The Black Snake," the reptile found dead in the roadway is thrown into the bushes as "looped and useless as an old bicycle tire." Yet, it is remembered as "cool and gleaming as a braided whip," imbued with the "brighter fire" of all nature which "… says to oblivion: not me!"
Oliver identifies within these life cycles the continuous elements of change, sensual pleasure, and love. She reveals that they not only accompany the companion dreams but also necessarily involve experiencing both pain and pleasure. In "Two Horses," Jack and Racket are wished from death into "Elysian fields … without fences" but realistically and sadly recognized as changed like all of life in "two graves big as cellar holes / At the bottom of the north meadow." In "Worm Moon," the death of winter changes joyfully into spring's "love match that will bring forth fantastic children / … who will believe, for years, / that everything is possible." Celebrating sensual pleasure in "Looking for Mushrooms," the poetic persona perceives the hunt and capture of the delectable "salvo of the forest" as "rich / and romping on the tongue" for man and beast alike. Yet, in the "Bone Poem" that follows, as she comes upon the "rat litter" at the bottom of the owl's tree, she recognizes the owl's most recent sensual delight not only as being part of the eternal food chain but also as eventually dissolving "back to the center" where "the rat will learn to fly, the owl / will be devoured." And, Oliver celebrates motherly love in both the human and animal world. In "Snow Moon—Black Bear Gives Birth," the mother bear washes and snuggles her newborn, gives them the "rich river" of her nipples, and thus establishes each one as "an original." A mother's love changes, though, from joy to a pain that "lashes out with a cutting edge" in "Strawberry Moon." Elizabeth Fortune is not only left by "the young man / full of promises, and the face of the moon / a white fire" but also separated from the child born out of wedlock, being forced by society to "climb in the attic."
As Oliver celebrates the themes of birth, decay, death, dreams, change, sensual pleasure, and love, she asserts their equal and certain existence for both man and animal. In fact, she assures modern man of his survival because he is part of the natural world and its rejuvenating potential. This assurance, though, includes the experience of beauty, joy, and sensual pleasure as well as that of mystery, terror, and pain.
According to Joyce Carol Oates, Oliver relates these experiences to an essential tension and loneliness man experiences as he lives simultaneously in two worlds—the personal, familial, human world and the inhuman, impersonal, natural world. Within the human world, man essentially struggles alone to find a sense of identity, peace, and immortality. In the poem "John Chapman," an eccentric, anti-social old man of the Ohio forests becomes a "good legend" by planting and giving away apple trees. He decides not to die to "the secret, and the pain" of unrequited love but "to live, to go on caring about something." In "Dreams," the narrator compares a single rain-swollen creek's rushing drive and desire for "a new life in a new land / where vines tumble thick as shipropes, / The ferns grow tall as trees!" to two pioneering greatuncles who got lost in Colorado looking for the good life. With "pounding heart and pride," she celebrates them as "full of hope and vision; / … healthy as animals, and rich / as their dreams …"—at peace and immortalized before they died alone.
Manousos suggests that Oliver then counterbalances man's dream of immortality with man's struggle to survive mortality—his subjection to increasingly waning natural powers after birth. In "Ice," the narrator painfully acknowledges her father's feverish distribution of ice grips as an attempt in his "last winter" to "… be welcomed and useful—/ … Not to be sent alone over the black ice." In "The Garden," the speaker pities the wealthy, good-mannered, defiant woman who spends her life alone working three gardeners around the clock to keep "the wilderness at bay." In the end, this self-sufficient matron terrifyingly discovers her wasted effort and struggle and loss—"how powerless she was / … like the least of us grew old and weedy. / Felt her mind crumble … / Heard the trees thicken as they stumbled toward her / And set their cracking weight upon her bones."
To Oliver, the reconciliation of man's desire for immortality and his experience of mortality depends on his willingness to recognize them as polarities. According to A. Poulin, Jr., the essential tension between them in Oliver's poetry "… defines the boundaries of all experience—whether in the physical world, in the realm of human relationships, or in the self." In her poems, she equates this reconciliation with the very sense of connectedness she celebrates in Twelve Moons, a unity existing between the human and natural worlds. Through a personal psychic journey, man must deny and eliminate the self-conscious "I" that seeks immortality and open his sensual perception to the mortal kinship between the human and the natural.
In "Entering the Kingdom," the narrator expresses her desire to negate the "I" and become one with nature—"the dream of my life / Is to lie down by a slow river / And stare at the light in the trees—/ To learn something of being nothing / A little while but the rich / Lens of attention." In "Blackleaf Swamp," she asks whether being human negates her being "part bird, part beast" and queries if so, "… why does a wing in the air / Sweep against my blood / Like a sharp oar?" After her study of "darkness and trees and water," she confidently concludes that such selfless communion with nature "feels like the love of my mother." In "The Plum Trees," as the poetic persona explores the sensual inundation of eating summer plums, she celebrates the "sensibility" or critical importance of increased sensual perception. For her, "joy / is a taste before / it's anything else …" and "the only way to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it / into the body first, like small / wild plums." According to Manousos, Oliver's vision of man's sensual union with nature becomes celebratory and religious in the deepest sense. In "The Fawn," the worshipper questions "what is holiness?" as she succumbs not to the ringing church bells but "to the woods instead," calling "blessed" a momentary touching of spirits between herself and a newborn fawn.
The results of a psychic journey which elevates man's sensual perception above his self-consciousness are still polar—eliciting both joy and pleasure, pain and terror. As man recognizes the oneness of all forms of life, he joyfully experiences glimpses of immortality and eternity. In "Pink Moon the Pond," Oliver celebrates this moment:
… the soul rises from your bones
and strides out over the water …
not even noticing
You are something else …
And that's when it happens—
You see everything
through their eyes,
their joy, their necessity …
And that's when you know
You will live whether you will or not,
one way or another,
because everything is everything else,
one long muscle.
Man finally sees his immortality as a self-denying mortal life in communion with the eternal processes of nature.
When man acknowledges his mortal participation in the natural cycles of life, he is also terrified by nature's total disregard for the individual, whether prey or predator. According to Oates, Oliver, in "Winter in the Country," reveals the natural world's refusal to divide individuals or creatures into victims or oppressors. The narrator states, "the terror of the country / Is not the easy death …" but "Is prey and hawk together, / still flying, both exhausted, / In the blue sack of weather." Oliver insists that man must also take his place in this frightening, unsentimental, unpoliticized natural world, for he too is subject to waning natural powers. In "Farm Country," the speaker criticizes the view that "life is chicken soup." She urges man to act as decisively and realistically as the farm wife does—"sharpening her knives, putting on the heavy apron and boots, crossing the lawn, and entering the hen house."
Because of this elevated yet terrifying sensual perception, man can be potentially renewed. When he denies the superiority of his own self-consciousness and acceptingly connects his own mortality to the world around him, he is different. No longer is he the "cruel but honest" one in "Cold Poem." Such a man keeps "… alive … taking one after another / the necessary bodies of others, the many / crushed red flowers" Neither can he be a part of the dispassionate news audience in "Beyond the Snow Belt." They "forget with ease each far mortality" because "… except as we have loved. / All news arrives as from a distant land."
Instead, contemporary man can be more loving, caring, and sensitive as he participates in his environment. His potential exists as surely as that of the narrator's ancestors in "Stark Boughs on the Family Tree." They "built great barns and propped their lives / Upon a slow heartbreaking care" as "they left the small / Accomplished, till the great was done." Like the niece in "Aunt Mary," he may even long to know the hidden spirit of one so loud and fat. As he views the skinny child in the family album "… in a time before her glands / Grew wild as pumps, and fleshed her to a joke," he may even lament her death, learning "how wise we grow, / Just as the pulse of things slips from the hand."
As a different person, modern man can also recognize that facing, coping, and adapting to life's trials and disappointments are the only means of gaining inward peace and self-identity. In "No Voyage," Oliver documents the human tendency to run away from the pain and unpleasantness experienced in life. The poem's narrator insists on the necessity to "inherit from disaster before I move / … To sort the weeping ruins of my house; / Here or nowhere I will make peace with the fact." To Oliver, as nature learns, so must man. In "Storm," as the speaker seeks shelter from a deadly heaven "full of spitting snow," she marvels at "deer lying / In the pine groves," "foxes plunging home," "crows plump / As black rocks in cold trees." She concludes that "what saves them is thinking that dying / Is only floating away into / The life of the snow"—accepting their place and time in the natural cycle of life and fulfilling the complete potential of their being.
Poulin believes that the acceptance of the hard truths of mortal existence is epiphany for Oliver as well as for modern man himself—the essential nature or meaning of life. In "Blackwater Wood," she asserts that living productively today is dependent on three measures of acceptance by man:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
To Oliver, man's inward struggles to be immortal through art, work, or love do not cancel mortal existence but rather create a fleeting sense of stay. In "Music Lessons," when the teacher takes over the piano, "sound becomes music" that flees "all tedious bonds: / supper, the duties of flesh and home, / the knife at the throat, the death in the metronome." The grand finale, though, is only a momentary transformation.
Contemporary man's acceptance of his mortality will benefit daily living in productive encounters of love, caring, and understanding. It allows him to look beyond the self to view death as in harmony with the recreative processes of nature In "The Kitten," the narrator believes that she "did right" to give the stillborn "with one large eye / in the center of its small forehead" back peacefully to nature rather than to a museum. For she asserts, "life is infinitely inventive. / saying what other arrangements / lie in the dark seed of the earth …" In "University Hospital, Boston," a family member reconciles the dying of a loved one. While she tells him "you are better," she sees other beds "made all new, / the machines … rolled away…." And, she acknowledges, "… the silence / continues. deep and neutral, as I stand there, loving you"
The acceptance of the hard truths of mortality also provides a reforming perspective on daily dying—the progressive inward death of one's self-consciousness. As Oliver celebrates in "Sleeping in the Forest," such daily extinctions allow man to "vanish into something better." In "Sharks," as the narrator describes swimmers too soon forgetting the lifeguard's warning, she asserts: "… life's winners are not the rapacious but the patient; / What triumphs and takes new territory / has learned to lie for centuries in the shadows / like the shadows of the rocks."
Oliver's poetry, then, reminds modern man that accepting the dire consequences of mortal existence through a heightened sensual perception takes time and patience. It does not come easily like an automatic reflex but rather develops through a slow, painful transformation of self to selflessness. Its rewards, however, are as delectable and exciting as the red fox's appearance in "Tasting the Wild Grapes"—"lively as the dark thorns of the wild grapes / on the unsuspecting tongue!"
Thus reviewed is the poetry of Mary Oliver—contemporarily non-representative, positive, traditional, conservative, deceptively simple, complex without throwing complexities in the way of the reader. As a modern poet, she is both distinctive and worthwhile. In her meticulous craft and loving insight into what endures in both the human and natural worlds, she gives us all not only hope but also the potential for salvation—a modern renewal through mortal acceptance.
This section contains 2,853 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)