New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Greg Kuzma

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

SOURCE: A review of Dream Work, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 63, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 111-12.

Kuzma is an American poet. In the following review of Dream Work, he praises Oliver's "purity of motive" in expressing the gracefulness of nature.

Mary Oliver's Dream Work sees in the earth everywhere evidence of a profound satisfaction. "Each pond," she tells us, "with its blazing lilies / is a prayer heard and answered …" ("Morning Poem") or "The sea / isn't a place / but a fact, and / a mystery …" ("The Waves"). In all her various acts of defining or saying precisely what she knows, it is the earth's fact and mystery and beauty she is moving toward, a limit, a perfection. It is wiser than we are. It is more at peace. Even its humblest element surpasses us in virtue:

      Isn't it plain the sheets of moss, except that
      they have no tongues, could lecture
      all day if they wanted about
 
      spiritual patience?
                             ("Landscape")

Accordingly, most of the poems lend to Nature ear and eye. They notice the shark's "domed head," its "teeth / in the grin and grotto of its impossible mouth," the "stone eyes" of black snakes, "root-wrangle," "the moon staring / with her bonewhite eye," "the smell of mud," "the crisp life-muscle" of the clam as she slashes through it with her knife, "the black anonymous roar" of the "turning tide." Fresh vigorous description characterizes the book, but it is also sufficient merely to name, to say what she's seen and done in the simplest terms, to enumerate the abundance. One finds always Oliver's purity of motive. Always the intent is to come close, and always it seems, one falls short. In what is perhaps her most thorough statement of theme, "Whispers," she makes a series of proposals, all of which end in frustration. One tries to "slide into / the heaven of sensation" but meets a "resistance." One tries to imagine "pleasure, / shining like honey," but it is "locked in some / secret tree." And so on. Though the rivers swirl and the birds are "like tossing fires" and nature is "blood's heaven, spirit's haven," the message is clear—"you cannot belong."

Of course what is clear is that Oliver does belong, and that she comes as close as most of us are likely to get. While the poems are very good at dramatizing the aspiring soul in its restlessness, Oliver is all the while expressing harmony by means of her finely-tuned and lush language. If Nature confronts us with a gracefulness that is self-contained and self-sufficient, and needs nothing from us, not even our participation, our proper duty, Oliver seems to be saying, is to respond in kind through art. Flashes of marvelous language occur at almost every turn. In attempting to discover, for example, that "something" that lies at the, center of her responsiveness, she writes "something about the way / stone stays mute and put," where reiterations of consonants attest to the sturdiness that resides at the heart of experience. In "Trilliums," Nature's many voices and energies are embodied in the sequence of noun and verb combinations of stanza six:

      From the time of snow-melt,
        when the creek roared
          and the mud slid
            and the seeds cracked …

Or when she describes our longing to understand the mysteries around us and within us (in "Dreams"), her use of falling meter in the third stanza beautifully expresses not only the ardor of the emotion and its confidence but also our doubt as to our ultimate success:

      if you could only remember
      and string them all together
      they would spell the answer …

These are all small touches, but deft ones, and take the poems well beyond mere flat assertion or statement, and, because rhythm is one of the ways voice becomes physical, we are taken toward a harmonizing of Nature and the human voice that sings its praises. Perhaps Oliver's most effective technique is her adoption in many of the poems of a short, breathy line. As in the quoted material, the poet is not cramped in these ordinarily tight confines. Instead she achieves rich parallels as well as generous and expansive postponements and delays, while also taking full advantage of the many surprises the short lines afford and hinge on, and the many returns. What one gets is a voice eager to speak of wonders and an urgency to get back line after line to further engagements. It is a mode altogether appropriate to her moods and represents, I think, a communion of form and content rare in contemporary poetry.

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This section contains 754 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Greg Kuzma