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Critical Essay by Janet McNew
SOURCE: "Mary Oliver and the Tradition of Romantic Nature Poetry," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 59-77.
In the following essay, McNew discusses why contemporary critics have difficulty analyzing Oliver's poetry within the framework of the romantic tradition.
The special puzzle of Romanticism is the dialectical role that nature had to take in the revival of the mode of romance. Most simply, Romantic nature poetry, despite a long critical history of misrepresentation, was an anti-nature poetry…. Romantic or internalized romance … tends to see the context of nature as a trap for the mature imagination.
—Harold Bloom, "The Internalization of the Quest Romance"
It is the destiny of consciousness … to separate from nature, so that it can finally transcend not only nature but also its own lesser forms.
—Geoffrey Hartman, "Romanticism and 'Anti-Self Consciousness'"
To become poets, women must shift form agreeing to see themselves as daughters of nature and as parts of the world of objects to seeing themselves as daughters of an Eve reclaimed for their poetry.
—Margaret Homans, Women Writers and Poetic Identity
To say that Mary Oliver is a visionary poet of nature is to place her in a modern poetic tradition that springs from the English romantics. Some of the best critical insights into modern mythopoeic lyricism have focused on this tradition as it moves from Wordsworth and Keats to Yeats and Stevens. A glittering company including Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, M. H. Abrams, and Geoffrey Hartman have enriched readings of contemporary visionary poetry by revealing continuities with the romantic consciousness, yet this criticism also confuses readings of Mary Oliver—or H.D. or Audre Lorde—because of unexamined gender bias. Particularly in regard to mythic relations to nature, criticism that does not attend to differences in the psychology and visions of men and women slights the power of women poets. Susan Griffin in Woman and Nature, Carol Christ in Diving Deep and Surfacing, Alicia Ostriker in Stealing the Language, Estella Lauter in Women as Mythmakers all have begun to argue that revising myths about human relations to nature represents a crucial source of creative power for women, yet there remain extraordinary resistances in romantic criticism to valuing these specifically feminine myths. Even a feminist critic like Margaret Homans, whose first book, Women Writers and Poetic Identity, is the best and most sustained examination of women in the romantic tradition, insists that a "feminine tradition" in visionary poetry must turn away from myths that associate women with nature. Although Homans's second book, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing, revises this formulation in ways that I will use later to evaluate Oliver's work, her early feminist work reflects her training in the Bloom-Hartman system of values. Why, we might ask, is so much important contemporary criticism in the romantic tradition unable to appreciate the kind of nature poetry that Mary Oliver writes?
The areas of dispute for these distinguished critics of romantic nature poetry usually involve boundaries—first, of course, between the self and nature, but also by extension between soul and body, consciousness and unconsciousness, subject and object, culture and nature, language and muteness, immortality and death, imaginative poet and immature child, transcendence and immanence. Hence, when we examine the archetypic situation of modern nature poetry and find a single human speaker considering his relation to a landscape (as in Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey") or to another creature (as in Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale"), we also recognize the interplay of these mythologically opposed pairs. Furthermore, all of these dichotomies have also been philosophically and mythically related to that most pervasive pair, masculine and feminine. The usual sexual dynamic in romantic nature poetry assumes, therefore, a speaking male subject who explores his relation to a mute and female nature [McNew attributes this idea to Homans in Women Writers and Poetic Identity]. Finding an authentic place in this traditional pattern clearly presents challenges for women poets, but, I will argue, the mythological strategies of women poets are less bound by patriarchal strictures than is the literary criticism which evaluates them.
Mary Oliver won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive, and she has had five books of poetry printed and received with warm notices by important reviewers. Although in these circumstances it would be absurd to say that she is neglected, it is true that her work has not received sustained critical attention. Her poetry is neither a replication of romantic accomplishment nor is it, to use Bloom's term, a "belated" modern version of visionary romanticism as is, for instance, that of the much-attended John Ashbery. I suspect that her tones and dramatic situations are not of the sort to attract critics trained in the romantic tradition, for as M. H. Abrams has argued, "great Romantic poems were written … in the later mood of revolutionary disillusionment or despair."
Consider, by way of contrast, Oliver's poem "Sleeping in the Forest":
I thought the earth
remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
This poem is about comfort and a visionary experience that clearly continues to nourish the speaker even though the action of the poem is in the past tense. The first poem in Twelve Moons, the book published just before American Primitive, "Sleeping" exemplifies the dramatic concentration on a mystical closeness to the natural world which has become the major subject of Oliver's last three books. Taking the basic elements of a camping trip, Oliver suggests a ritual return to a maternal earth. The speaker's movement is earthward and toward immersion in a forest floor that so engulfs her that she feels "as if in water." The transformation she describes is the opposite of transcendence, as it associates her with "lichens and seeds." Though she sleeps as profoundly as "a stone / on the riverbed," her sleep is not a blankness but the route taken to a visionary dissolution of her human identity. She grapples "with a luminous doom" which is not a frightening end but rather a temporary vanishing "into something better." Short lines emphasize the lyrical simplicity in this celebration of the joy to be achieved in physical and imaginative unity with nature, but her spare form contains a world of mythic assumptions very different from those of her famous romantic precursors.
Because Oliver's poetry is not as well known as it deserves to be, I want to trace her visionary progress in more detail, but for now this one example will serve to associate her with what Estella Lauter sees as a widespread revision by women artists of "key elements of Western mythology," especially as they concern women's relationship to nature. With references to the work of Susan Griffin, Marge Piercy, and Audre Lorde, among others, Lauter finds a "degree of identification with nature, without fear and without loss of consciousness" which occurs in the works of "surprising numbers of women." Likewise, Carol Christ finds in her examination of spiritual quests "the themes of affirmation of women's bodies and women's connection to nature." Oliver clearly shares her vision with a growing group of women writers who assert with Susan Griffin that "We are nature seeing nature. We are nature with a concept of nature."
If we turn back now to the epigraphs from Bloom, Hartman, and Homans, the contrast is blatant. For the romantic visions these critics brilliantly and convincingly analyze, everything depends on a growth process that includes separating from and transcending nature and its attendant mortality. They reveal a paradoxical "romantic revolution" that began as an attempt to unify body and soul, subject and object, mind and nature but almost immediately became a poetry about the crises and imaginative reconstructions of an alienated consciousness which could regain only fleeting and ambiguous glimpses of union with body, objects, nature. Instead, these poets attempt to purchase new unities by leaving pantheistic pleasures in the past and by relocating faith in the transcendent imagination (Wordsworth's "years that bring the philosophic mind") or in a transcendent art that celebrates a creativity liberated from natural cycles (Yeats's "artifice of eternity').
In these terms Oliver might be associated with a line of female romantic figures like Blake's Thel or Wordsworth's Lucy who fail to pass through ecstatic childhood to the pains of an alienated consciousness and on to the freedom of a transcendent imagination. These mythic women either remain tragically childish or die tragically young and are merged with the mute and inert "rocks, and stones, and trees" of Wordsworth's elegy "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal." Adult female figures associated with nature, like Keats's "La Belle Dame sans Merci," are given witchlike powers to ensnare male poetic questers in sensuous traps and stay them from progress to their transcendent goals. That Starhawk and Mary Daly, among other women writers, happily accept the once-dreaded association with the traditions of witchcraft can do little to allay suspicions that the vision of nature they share will not easily be subsumed into received patriarchal myths about the relation to nature. As witches, spinsters, crones, and nature-mothers begin to speak for themselves, they transvalue their romantic forefathers' mythic assessments as they defy the doom of muteness placed on all these female Others who inhabit masculine poetic landscapes.
Abrams (Natural Supernaturalism) and Hartman have shown that "The traditional scheme of Eden, fall, and redemption merges with the new [romantic] triad of nature, self-consciousness, imagination." Especially when nature is identified with mother and a transcendent God with father, it is easy enough to associate such a pattern with the Freudian version of the Oedipus myth which describes the child's progress from unity with the mother to separation and sexual yearning for renewed union with the mother and finally to a new resolution of identification with the father. That mythic third term, whether it be called Redemption, God the Father, or the Transcendent Imagination, has a distinctly masculine character. In short, the mythic pattern that contemporary criticism has valorized as the high modern poetic place of nature is built on a male model of development. Yet much important feminist theory accepts this valuation. Simone de Beauvoir agreed to a similar model when she celebrated the freedom gained by transcendence and denounced "immanence" as a doom that enmeshes woman in the biological prison house of nature and her body. In her first book, Margaret Homans also assumed that some variation of this mythic pattern is the only way for women poets to come into their fullest powers. She disputed most directly with Adrienne Rich's "Transcendental Etude" because of its eventual refusal of transcendence and its association with nature in the form of a rock shelf. Homans could not credit a poetry that refuses to see human consciousness as necessarily involving transcendence of a maternal nature nor a visionary art that will not seek salvation at the price of alienation from what Oliver calls "the soft animal of your body."
Much, however, suggests that such a pattern for a woman would involve resignation to participation in a patriarchal plan that involves a repudiation of what is mythically female and maternal—the earth, natural cycles, the body. In a recent issue of Critical Inquiry, Sandra Gilbert speculated on ways that women novelists have encoded anxiety about laws of a patriarchal culture which preaches a horrible text to budding women artists: "You must bury your mother; you must give yourself to your father." Refusal to follow this patriarchal order puts a woman artist in a dangerously liminal position in relation to her culture, but it also holds the promise of regaining power lost to those who become what Gilbert calls good "literary daughter[s]." With all the strength of mythic association to body and to nature intact, Oliver and other "bad" daughters create mythic patterns unmarred by the shame of denied origins.
Several of Oliver's poems present the embrace of animals as a dreamlike regaining of original wholeness. "Winter Sleep" imagines crawling "under the hillside" with a "drowsy she-bear." She and her partner are "Two old sisters familiar to each other / As cups in a cupboard." And again, in a poem about remnants of lost prairie buffalo, she concludes with a dream of a buffalo cow giving birth:
in the fragrant grass
in the wild domains
of the prairie spring, and I asked them,
in my dream I knelt down and asked them
to make room for me.
In terms of the romantic critical tradition I have outlined, these dreams would suggest a disturbing retreat from consciousness, a return to the preoedipal state that signals failure to achieve a mature poetic identity by successful separation from a maternal nature. Carol Christ, however, points out that because female patterns of development do not necessarily enforce so rigid a separation from the mother, the girl child's tendency to see the world in terms of sameness rather than difference may actually give her greater access to mystical experience. The re-embrace of an attachment to a woman has also, of course, become a standard theme of poets who see the necessity of woman-identification as a prerequisite to a strong womanly self. The best feminist psychology—like, for instance, that of Carol Gilligan—usually understands an integrated female identity to involve some version of Rich's "homesickness for a woman," which in her vision represents a recovery of lost maternal origins. Nowhere in her poetry is Oliver a programmatic feminist; nevertheless, her dreams of reunion with female creatures and with maternal nature receive the validation in feminist terms that male developmental theories and literary criticism built on them would deny.
"The Sea" takes this vision a step further and imagines the body crying for "the lost parts of itself—/ fins, gills / opening like flowers into / the flesh." Her "legs / want to lock" and she can feel "the blue-gray scales." Her reverse phylogeny strongly suggests the backward ontogeny of a return to the womb:
in that motherlap,
in that dreamhouse
of salt and exercise,
what a spillage
of nostalgia pleads
from the very bones!
The dive into the sea, "that / insucking genesis," allows her to "simply / become again a flaming body / of blind feeling." Nothing in the poem questions the ecstatic fulfillment of this vision. Indeed, in her mythic plot, immersion is revelation of a mystical consciousness and an experience of renewal. How strikingly different this attitude is from the most powerful masculine romantic myths can be seen in a few brief examples. Whitman in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and Crane in "Voyages" also express oceanic longings for immersion, yet there is a crucial difference in their ambivalent sense that returning to the womblike sea would be both vision and suicide. Almost echoing Whitman, Crane urges himself, "Hasten, while they are true—sleep, death, desire, / Close round one instant in one floating flower." This is the old lure of Keats's longing for union with the nightingale which is also a longing for an end to consciousness, "To cease upon the midnight with no pain," and of Whitman's cradle-rocking crone-mother, the sea, who hisses the "low and delicious word death."
Though Oliver's direction of desire is also toward dissolving individual consciousness, she lacks the male poet's mixture of finality and terror with her longing, perhaps because her sense of movement between her individual consciousness and oceanic immersion is more fluid. Her visionary unions belong neither to a lost childhood experience, as does Whitman's, nor to future ultimate death, as does Crane's. She often sleeps to dream of her unions, but she has none of Keats's torment over whether those dreams are the work of deceptive fancy. In "Dreams" as in "White Night" she recalls night visions that tap a bodily consciousness hidden in the light of day and reason, one that reveals a blissful connection to the natural world. "Dreams" asserts that within the "dark buds of dreams" are truths:
In the center
of every petal
is a letter,
and you imagine
if you could only remember
and string them all together
they would spell the answer.
As in "Sleeping in the Forest," her relatively easy movement in and out of visionary physical immersion gives her less reason to find danger or ambiguity in these experiences. The less rigid boundaries to which Carol Christ refers allow her to avoid the anxious either / or questions which run through much male nature poetry: she is herself, human and finite, and in states that are a heightening of physicality and of vision, she is a part of a natural vastness that subsumes her human individuality. She crosses and recrosses those boundaries without anxiety. Nancy Chodorow has argued that this ease of movement back and forth into preoedipal modes represents a strength for maturing girls, who may therefore "come to experience themselves as less differentiated than boys, as more continuous with and related to the external object-world and as differently oriented to their inner object-world as well."
Something else, too, disinclines Oliver to tremble over boundaries between herself and nature, or subject and object, as philosophers would have it. She says in "Humpbacks," "I know several lives worth living," and her imaginations of transformations into fish, fowl, and buffalo become dreams of other lives, other identities that are inhuman but neither unconscious nor mute. For her, almost nothing exists as unconscious object. In "Winter Trees," she traces her gradual recognition that everything has consciousness and even language of some sort: "First it was only the winter trees—/ their boughs eloquent at midnight." But then, as spring comes on and "the ponds opened," she begins "to listen to them" and hears articulate sounds. Next, she even hears that most inert part of nature, "rocks / flicking their silver tongues all summer." Added to, then, Oliver's unpatrolled ego boundaries, her conviction that nature is also an articulate and conscious subject distinguishes her poetry from that built on the eventual recognition of nature as a mute and objective Other.
Perhaps I should pause here to insist, as Carol Gilligan did when she distinguished a moral development for some women that was different from but not inferior to that of Lawrence Kohlberg's men, that Oliver's difference does not necessarily diminish her visionary power. Gilligan and Chodorow have argued that the masculine emphasis on separation, individuation, and autonomy is not superior to the feminine emphasis on interdependence and attachment. For Oliver I have been arguing that this emphasis produces different myths of visionary progress and different concepts of maturity, but once schooled in masculine traditions, readers may find it dangerously easy to see only childish naivete in a celebratory sense of connection to nature. In poems such as "Ghosts" and "Tecumseh," Oliver reveals a keen sense of the alienating effects of a white, imperialist culture that destroys the ecological balances of creatures and rivers, but she herself speaks as an outsider to this culture, as one who rejects its direction in order to join the "primitive" of her book title. As Sherry Ortner has argued, the primitive, the raw and natural, and prehistory all represent contexts within which women traditionally have been set apart from association with patriarchal culture.
Neither ignorant nor immature, the choice of the primitive for Oliver represents choosing a life-affirming wisdom that our advanced culture has, to its detriment, forgotten. Especially in her newest book, Dream Work, Oliver confronts loathsome facts about father-daughter incest, the Holocaust, and starving children and sees them as cultural failures to grasp the simple truths of bodiliness, of our human connection to nature. The haughty businessman in "Rage" denies nightly dreams of his violated daughter as a "tree / that will never come to leaf"; Yeats, Whitman, and van Gogh all committed unforgivable sin when they created "exquisite poems" that celebrate solipsistic and life-hating visions. In her insistence on striving toward connections denied by her culture, then, Oliver's visionary association with nature enables her to be truer to the original intentions of romanticism than were the great male poets who found themselves tugged toward solipsism and away from their original desires for a reconnection to nature. Through the lens of feminist awareness, perhaps it is possible to read the re-emergence of Christian quest patterns that Abrams finds in romantic poetry as tragic failures of revolutionary intentions to break the grip of patriarchal imperatives. The beauty of "Tintern Abbey" or "Frost at Midnight" is beyond argument, but the valuation of their mythic order is not.
What Oliver does in her most intense visionary poetry is not so much to defy patriarchal boundaries as to ignore their defining powers. The terms "soul" and "body," for example, do appear in her poetry, but her mischievous phrasing often confuses the expected dichotomy. "Pink Moon—The Pond" begins with the thrilling call of the spring night at the pond, a calling so stirring that "your soul rises from your bones / and strides out over the water." The "bones," left desolate on the shore, shout for the soul to "come back!" but when the soul does not listen, "like a good friend, / you decide to follow." Ecstasy, vision, and transformation all occur when she steps bodily into the pond, wraps herself in "the darkness coming down / … called / a woman's body / as it turns into mud and leaves." As a matter of fact, then, she does not actually join that airy soul which skims lightly across the water. The transcendent soul floats "unfolding / like a pair of wings" above the pond, becoming a sort of illusory husk which lures her out but has nothing else to do with the vision and fulfillment which occur when she becomes pure body and sinks into the rhythms of nature's spring. Similarly, "Humpbacks" ends with this odd observation:
Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones
toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire
even the great whale,
throbs with song.
Once again the "spirit" shows a tendency to move skyward while the "bones," often her image for bodily quintessence, dive downward into a singing, earthly communion. The odd thing about this body / soul configuration is that the soul's yearnings appear both foolish and less genuinely visionary than the wise dreams of the body.
In Oliver's "primitive" world, physicality thus becomes the most visionary spirituality. No less than sixteen poems in American Primitive use eating as a central, eucharistic symbol for mystical communion with nature. "The Fish" describes eating her catch:
Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish,…
Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.
Three poems about eating honey depend on imagining the food as a link to wood, bees, and flowers, "a taste / composed of everything lost, in which everything / lost is found." Two poems about eating blackberries and one about eating plums confirm her assertion that when pursued with visionary intensity, a physical appetite for natural foods can become an agent of magical power, a nourishment for visionary knowledge:
is a taste before
it's anything else,…
the only way
to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it
into the body first, like small
This mystical sensuality operates also through the sexual appetite which in "Blossom" presents the only viable alternative to despair in the face of time which "chops at us all like an iron / hoe." Only "our hunger" and "the burning" bring
before death, nights
in the swale—everything else
can wait but not
from the root
of the body.
"The Gardens" closes American Primitive in a Sapphic transport which imagines the lover as a "dark country / I keep dreaming of." Her lover's body becomes a landscape of "boughs," a deep forest of "trees," "white fields," and "rivers of bone" into which she plunges, running "toward the interior, / the unseen, the unknowable / center."
Intensely sensuous bodily experience represents for Oliver the human in the act of recovering a truth—that we are creatures. Memory of lost childhood sensuality, "splendor in the grass," led Wordsworth to a very different truth. In his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," he demoted nature from mother to "homely nurse" because he wanted to claim a more divine parentage, a patriarchal one with "God, who is our home." Few romantic poets, even those like Wordsworth who wrote to recover a closer relation to nature, finally see themselves as entirely natural creatures, for natural creatures die, and poets, as Wordsworth's title indicates, must find an imaginative route to immortality. In the face of sober truths about mortality, Oliver remains faithful to her attachment to nature. Instead of forsaking the natural for supernatural eternity, her poems follow the cycles of the seasons to image loss and the possibility for renewal. These vast natural cycles, which usually symbolize traps and prison houses for the romantic visionary, are strangely consoling for Oliver. Wedding herself to them holds her close to the deepest mysteries she knows, those of natural transformation. In a poem about the happiest month, "May," she writes of her
deepest certainty that this existence too—
this sense of well-being, the flourishing
of the physical body—rides
near the hub of the miracle that everything
is a part of, is as good
as a poem or a prayer …
She has also many meditations on crueler seasons which teach her lessons about necessity, survival, and limitation. "A Poem for the Blue Heron" is set in late November when the bird accepts the need for flight from the cold, and the speaker remembers someone telling her, "Not everything is possible; / some things are impossible." "Cold Poem" ends with a characterization of winter as a time for a necessary loss of illusion:
In the season of snow,
in the immeasurable cold,
we grow cruel but honest; we keep
if we can, taking one after another
the necessary bodies of others, the many
crushed red flowers.
She codifies her visionary acceptance of the immanent truths of natural cycles most directly in "In the Blackwater Woods":
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
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.
Perhaps the most surprising examples of her vision of the all-enveloping movement of natural cycles occur in a group of poems about the physical transformations occasioned by death. "Bone Poem" celebrates the eventual "equity" in the relation between raptor and victim that happens when bones decay into leaf meal and become food for other animals: "sooner or later / In the shimmering leaves / The rat will learn to fly, the owl / Will be devoured." "Vultures" celebrates the creatures who look for death "to eat it" and so to perform "the miracle: / resurrection." We are urged to overcome our revulsion and not to shrink from this gruesome demonstration of "the earth's / appetite, the unending / waterfalls of change." The poem that poses cyclical transformations in the largest and most positive way is "Ghosts," an elegy for lost buffalo herds. While it mourns the wanton destruction of these beasts by "Passengers shooting from train windows," it also points to the golden eagle who "has a bit of heaviness in him; / moreover the huge barns / seem ready, sometimes, to ramble off / toward deeper grass." These clues, together with the grass which still grows lush over places where buffaloes once left "rich droppings," lead her to insist, "In the book of the earth it is written: / nothing can die." This vision of a natural immortality necessitates surrender of any belief in the supernatural life of an individual soul after death, yet the physical economy of the earth's large cycles does suggest comfort and endurance of a sort to her. Individuality diffuses into a kind of fertilizer for other plants and animals, and the soul does not transcend the body but rather travels with it in a cycle of change that affects other parts of nature through the agency of a physical transmigration. Golden eagles carry a bit of buffalo in them, rats become owls, and, presumably, humans too are carried in these "unending waterfalls of change." Even Whitman, who so robustly sings of the physical, writes in "This Compost" (in Autumn Rivulets) a much less enthusiastic description of this same earthly economy of decay and reconstitution. The thought of the many "carcasses" buried in the earth stirs him to horrified wonder that the ground itself "does not sicken" nor are the winds "infectious." Finally he confesses, "Now I am terrified at the Earth." Not Oliver, for whom this sense of joining the large cycles of the earth is far more comforting than a transcendent vision that will allow for the preservation of her individuality.
Oliver's visionary goal, then, involves constructing a subjectivity that does not depend on separation from a world of objects. Instead, she respectfully confers subjecthood on nature, thereby modeling a kind of identity that does not depend on opposition for definition. "The Turtle" and "Moles" thus become unlikely exemplars, indefatigable heroes who accomplish constantly what the poet achieves only in her most intense dream visions: they have no self apart from their physical flourishing. Moles are "so willing to continue / generation after generation / accomplishing nothing / but their brief physical lives." "The Turtle" is a creature whose arduous climb toward the sands where she will lay eggs is a "greater thing" than a whole list of usual heroic virtues because
She can't see
herself apart from the rest of the world
or the world from what she must do
Crawling up the high hill,
luminous under the sand that has packed against her skin,
she doesn't dream,
she is a part of the pond she lives in,
the tall trees are her children,
the birds that swim above her
are tied to her by an unbreakable string.
It is perhaps no mistake that these enviable virtues of connectedness belong often to creatures who are also mothers. The ecstatic moments Oliver describes for herself are imitations of this turtle-state. In "Crossing the Swamp," for instance, she enacts her typical immersion and ends with a vision of herself redeemed by the "rich / and succulent marrows" of swamp muck:
dry stick given
one more chance by the whims
of swamp water—a bough
that still, after all these years,
could take root,
sprout, branch out, bud—
make of its life a breathing
palace of leaves.
The mythic direction pursued by Oliver has much in common with what Luce Irigaray calls "la mystérique," the mystical: "This is the place where 'she'—and in some cases he, if he follows 'her' lead—speaks about … 'subject' and 'Other' flowing out into an embrace of fire that mingles one term into another…. The walls of her prison are broken, the distinction between inside / outside transgressed." For Irigaray this mysticism is the most faithful women's vision because "any theory of the subject has always been appropriated by the 'masculine.' When she submits to (such a) theory, woman fails to realize that she is renouncing the specificity of her own relation to the imaginary." Toril Moi notes that Irigaray's formulation of mystical experience as "the loss of subjecthood … the disappearance of the subject / object opposition" holds "a particular appeal for women, whose very subjectivity is anyway being denied and repressed by patriarchal discourse."
At this point a return to Margaret Homans's work will clarify the situation of Oliver's mythmaking in feminist theory. In her first book, Homans designated as "daughters of an Eve reclaimed for their poetry" the sort of women poets who might eventually constitute an authentic "feminine tradition" by focusing even more insistently than their brother poets on the possibilities of "non-literal language" and their own "poetic subjectivity." As we have seen, Oliver could not take a place in such a tradition because her poems imagine an identity that does not depend on opposing and transcending the literal, natural creatures and things of the world. Identity matters less to her than consanguinity. Her vision involves not transforming nature into a more satisfactory imaginative realm but rather, paradoxically, using poetry to create a human who is more genuinely natural. Linda Gregerson, one of the most sensitive reviewers of American Primitive, notes, "She is not much moved by the works of man, and she somehow contrives to love the world more than she loves language, no common feat for an artisan who works in words." Put another way, Oliver gives primary emphasis not to the symbolic order of poetic language but to the more literal power of poetry to invoke inarticulate, intuitive experience itself. The frequent imperatives of her poems—all her urgings to "look!" or "listen!"—insist on moving outside art, into the lives of trees, damselflies, owls, and ponds.
In her second book, Bearing the Word, Homans implicitly revises her earlier standards for women's literary achievement. By means of a subtle and dazzling fusion of French and American feminist theory—of Kristeva, Irigaray, and Lacan with Chodorow, Showalter, and Froula-Homans explicates a revisionary and devalued "mother-daughter language" which has goals that almost coincide with those I have claimed for Oliver. Similar to Oliver's mode are the "revisionary myths of literal and figurative" which Homans sees as working "more through thematics than through the invention of new representational practices" such as those created by some French feminists. Homans writes, for instance, of feminine "literary situations and practices" which she terms "literalization" and observes in writers like Dorothy Wordsworth or Virginia Woolf who seek to associate themselves with the mythically female object-world which male literary discourse opposes to the subjectivity represented in the symbolic language of poetry. Homans praises Dorothy Wordsworth for her implicit criticism of her brother's representation of nature when she writes journal entries that offer "free parallels between human and natural, in which there is no order of hierarchy. Her parallels have meaning only if nature has as full a value as the human experience, and it can have that full value only if it is not portrayed as subordinate to the human." These "parallels" of Dorothy Wordsworth's also parallel the values I have attributed to Oliver when she refuses cultural oppositions between a poetic and a natural identity. Thus Homans's new formulation of the feminine strategy of literalization by which women writers identify with things devalued by patriarchal culture—things particularly associated with the mythically feminine natural world—suggests a tradition that embraces Mary Oliver as surely as Women Writers and Poetic Identity denied her.
Finally to understand and properly to assess the poetry of Mary Oliver involves theoretical revisions at least as radical as those Homans is striving toward. Although Coleridge defined art as "the reconciler of nature and man," the best modern criticism has shown that most male romantic nature poetry is about achieving an identity that transcends nature. Unlike Keats, who famously characterized subsumption in natural cycles as becoming "a sod," Oliver finds comfort and joy in her dreams of dissolving into the forest floor. Unlike Wordsworth, who resigns himself to "the philosophic mind" when he becomes powerless to achieve the child's blissful absorption in nature, Oliver finds herself still able to enter a natural communion lost to the adult male poet:
Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.
Every morning, so far, I'm alive.
At its most intense her poetry aims to peer beneath the constructions of culture and reason that burden us with an alienated consciousness to celebrate the primitive, mystical visions that reveal "a mossy darkness—/ a dream that would never breathe air / and was hinged to your wildest joy / like a shadow," a dream of oneness with a maternal earth-womb. It would be presumptuous indeed to argue that her faithfulness to the original romantic project makes Oliver's poetry better than that of her great romantic precursors, but her difference from them may cause her vision to be misunderstood and undervalued by those who use male poets to define achievement in nature poetry. Although her mystical values are not those finally chosen by most romantic critics as the tenets of modern poetic faith, they are, I think, values celebrated by many feminist theorists and a burgeoning group of mostly women artists. Surely they and Mary Oliver are neither mistaken nor callow to turn to the web of natural connection to find the source, the sustenance, and the end of the human.
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