American Primitive: Poems Characters

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American Primitive: Poems Summary & Study Guide Description

American Primitive: Poems Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on American Primitive: Poems by Mary Oliver.

Narrator, appears in Entire Collection

The narrator in this collection of poem is the person who speaks throughout, Mary Oliver. The poems are written in first person, and the narrator appears in every poem to a lesser or greater extent. In "August", the narrator spends all day eating blackberries, and her body accepts itself for what it is. In "The Kitten", the narrator takes the stillborn kitten from its mother's bed and buries it in the field behind the house. She could have given it to a museum or called the newspaper, but, instead, she buries it in the earth. This is her way of saying that life is real and inventive. She believes that she did the right thing by giving it back peacefully to the earth from whence it came. In "In the Pinewoods, Crows and Owl", the narrator addresses the owl.

In "The Lost Children", the narrator laments for the girl's parents as their search enumerates the terrible possibilities. The narrator reiterates her lamentation for the parents' grief, but she thinks that Lydia drank the cold water of some wild stream and wanted to live. She believes Isaac caught dancing feet. The narrator believes that death has no country and love has no name. The narrator knows why Tarhe, the old Wyandot chief, refuses to barter anything in the world to return Isaac; he does it for his own sake. In the seventh part, the narrator admits that since Tarhe is old and wise, she likes to think he understands; she likes to imagine that he did it for everyone.

In "The Bobcat", the narrator and her companion(s) are astounded when a bobcat leaps from the woods into the road. The narrator wanders what is the truth of the world. In "Fall Song", when time's measure painfully chafes, the narrator tries to remember that Now is nowhere except underfoot, like when the autumn flares out toward the end of the season, longing to stay. In "Egrets", the narrator continues past where the path ends. The mosquitoes smell her and come, biting her arms as the thorns snag her skin as well. She comes to the edge of an empty pond and sees three majestic egrets.

In "Clapp's Pond", the narrator tosses more logs on the fire. Sometimes she feels that everything closes up, causing the sense of distance to vanish and the edges to slide together. She lies in bed, half asleep, watching the rain, and feels she can see the soaked doe drink from the lake three miles away. In "Ghosts", the narrator asks if "you" have noticed. Later in the poem, the narrator asks if anyone has noticed how the rain falls soft without the fall of moccasins. In the seventh part, the narrator watches a cow give birth to a red calf and care for him with the tenderness of any caring woman. In her dream, she asks them to make room so that she can lie down beside them. In "Cold Poem", the narrator dreams about the fruit and grain of summer. In "A Poem for the Blue Heron", the narrator does not remember who, if anyone, first told her that some things are impossible and kindly led her back to where she was.

In "Postcard from Flamingo", the narrator considers the seven deadly sins and the difficulty of her life so far. She admires the sensual splashing of the white birds in the velvet water in the afternoon. She wishes a certain person were there; she would touch them if they were, and her hands would sing. In "An Old Whorehouse", the narrator and her companion climb through the broken window of the whorehouse and walk through every room. They are fourteen years old, and the dust cannot hide the glamour or teach them anything. They whisper and imagine; it will be years before they learn how effortlessly sin blooms and softens like a bed of flowers. In "Web", the narrator notes, "so this is fear". The spider scuttles away as she watches the blood bead on her skin and thinks of the lightning sizzling under the door. She imagines that it hurts. She remembers a bat in the attic, tiring from the swinging brooms and unaware that she would let it go. The narrator gets up to walk, to see if she can walk.

In "University Hospital, Boston", the narrator and her companion walk outside and sit under the trees. They sit and hold hands. Her companion tells the narrator that they are better. The narrator wonders how many young men, blind to the efforts to keep them alive, died here during the war while the doctors tried to save them, longing for means yet unimagined. The narrator looks into her companion's eyes and tells herself that they are better because her life without them would be a place of parched and broken trees. Later, as she walks down the corridor to the street, she steps inside an empty room where someone lay yesterday. She stands there in silence, loving her companion.

In "Spring", the narrator lifts her face to the pale, soft, clean flowers of the rain. The rain rubs its hands all over the narrator. In "The Snakes", the narrator sees two snakes hurry through the woods in perfect concert. In the first part of "Something", someone skulks through the narrator and her lover's yard, stumbling against a stone. They know he is there, but they kiss anyway. The narrator and her lover know about his suicide because no one tramples outside their window anymore. He was their lonely brother, their audience, and their spirit of the forest who grinned all night. In the third part, the narrator's lover is also dead now, and she, no longer young, knows what a kiss is worth.

In "May", the blossom storm out of the darkness in the month of May, and the narrator gathers their spiritual honey. In "White Night", the narrator floats all night in the shallow ponds as the moon wanders among the milky stems. Once, the narrator sees the moon reach out her hand and touch a muskrat's head; it is lovely. The narrator does not want to argue about the things that she thought she could not live without. The morning will rise from the east, but before that hurricane of light comes, the narrator wants to flow out across the mother of all waters and lose herself on the currents as she gathers tall lilies of sleep.

In "The Fish", the narrator catches her first fish. Later, she opens and eats him; now the fish and the narrator are one, tangled together, and the sea is in her. She feels certain that they will fall back into the sea. In "Crossing the Swamp", the narrator finds in the swamp an endless, wet, thick cosmos and the center of everything. Rather than wet, she feels painted and glittered with the fat, grassy mires of the rich and succulent marrows of the earth. She sees herself as a dry stick given one more chance by the whims of the swamp water; she is still able, after all these years, to make of her life a breathing palace of leaves. In "Humpbacks", the narrator knows a captain who has seen them play with seaweed; she knows a whale that will gently nudge the boat as it passes. The narrator knows several lives worth living. She points out that nothing one tries in life will ever dazzle them like the dreams of their own body and its spirit where everything throbs with song. In "A Meeting", the narrator meets the most beautiful woman the narrator has ever seen. The narrator wants to live her live over, begin again and be utterly wild.

In "Little Sister Pond", the narrator does not know what to say when she meets eyes with the damselfly. All day, the narrator turns the pages of several good books that cost plenty to set down and more to live by. All day, she also turns over her heavy, slow thoughts. She feels the sun's tenderness on her neck as she sits in the room. She thinks that if she turns, she will see someone standing there with a body like water. In "Blackberries", the narrator comes down the blacktop road from the Red Rock on a hot day. The narrator comes down the road from Red Rock, her head full of the windy whistling; it takes all day. In "The Sea", stroke-by-stroke, the narrator's body remembers that life and her legs want to join together which would be paradise. The sea is a dream house, and nostalgia spills from her bones. She longs to give up the inland and become a flaming body on the roughage of the sea; it would be a perfect beginning and a perfect conclusion. In "Happiness", the narrator watches the she-bear search for honey in the afternoon.

In "Music", the narrator ties together a few slender reeds and makes music as she turns into a goat like god. Her listener stands still and then follows her as she wanders over the rocks. The narrator cannot remember when this happened, but she thinks it was late summer. In cities, she has often walked down hotel hallways and heard this music behind shut doors. The narrator asks if the heart is accountable, if the body is more than a branch of a honey locust tree, and if there is a certain kind of music that lights up the blunt wilderness of the body. The narrator claims that it does not matter if it was late summer or even in her part of the world because it was only a dream. She did not turn into a lithe goat god and her listener did not come running; she asks her listener "did you?" In "Climbing the Chagrin River", the narrator and her companion enter the green river where turtles sun themselves. They push through the silky weight of wet rocks, wade under trees and climb stone steps into the timeless castles of nature. They skirt the secret pools where fish hang halfway down as light sparkles in the racing water.

In "Tecumseh", the narrator goes down to the Mad River and drinks from it. The narrator asks her readers if they know where the Shawnee are now. She asks if they would have to ask Washington and whether they would believe what they were told. The narrator would like to paint her body red and go out in the snow to die. This much the narrator is sure of: if someone meets Tecumseh, they will know him, and he will still be angry. In "Bluefish", the narrator has seen the angels coming up out of the water. She wonders where the earth tumbles beyond itself and becomes heaven. In "The Honey Tree", the narrator climbs the honey tree at last and eats the pure light, the bodies of the bees, and the dark hair of leaves. The narrator loves the world as she climbs in the wind and leaves, the cords of her body stretching and singing in the heaven of appetite.

In "In Blackwater Woods", the narrator calls attention to the trees turning their own bodies into pillars of light and giving off a rich fragrance. The cattails burst and float away on the ponds. Every named pond becomes nameless. Everything that the narrator has learned every year of her life leads back to this, the fires and the black river of loss where the other side is salvation and whose meaning no one will ever know. In "The Gardens", the narrator whispers a prayer to no god but to another creature like herself: "where are you?" The narrator asks how she will know the addressees' skin that is worn so neatly. The narrator keeps dreaming of this person and wonders how to touch them unless it is everywhere. The narrator begins here and there, finding them, the heart within them, the animal and the voice. She asks for their whereabouts and treks wherever they take her, deeper into the trees toward the interior, the unseen, and the unknowable center.

The Addressee, appears in Entire Collection

In many of the poems, the narrator refers to "you". Sometimes, this is a specific person, but at other times, this is more general and likely means the reader or mankind as a whole. The addressees in "Moles", "Tasting the Wild Grapes", "John Chapman", "Ghosts" and "Flying" are more general. Other general addressees are found in "Morning at Great Pond", "Blossom", "Honey at the Table", "Humpbacks", "The Roses", "Bluefish", "In Blackwater Woods", and "The Plum Trees". In "The Bobcat", the fact that the narrator is referring to an event seems to suggest that the addressee is a specific person, part of the "we" that she refers to. Many of the other poems seem to suggest a similar addressee that is included in some action with the narrator.

In "In the Pinewoods, Crows and Owl", the narrator specifically addresses the owl. She seems to be addressing a lover in "Postcard from Flamingo". The addressee of "University Hospital, Boston" is obviously someone the narrator loves very much. "Skunk Cabbage" has a more ambiguous addressee; it is unclear whether this is a specific person or anyone at all. "Something" obviously refers to a lover. It appears that "Music" and "The Gardens" also refer to lovers.

Tecumseh, appears in Tecumseh

Tecumseh lives near the Mad River, and his name means "Shooting Star". He gathers the tribes from the Mad River country north to the border and arms them one last time. Tecumseh vows to keep Ohio, and it takes him twenty years to fail. After the final, bloody fighting at the Thames, his body cannot be found. No one knows if his people buried him in a secret grave or he turned into a little boy again and rowed home in a canoe down the rivers. The narrator is sure that if anyone ever meets Tecumseh, they will recognize him and he will still be angry.

John Chapman, appears in John Chapman

John Chapman wears a tin pot for a hat and also uses it to cook his supper in the Ohio forests. He wears a sackcloth shirt and walks barefoot on his crooked feet over the roots. He plants lovely apple trees as he wanders. No one ever harms him, and he honors all of God's creatures. John Chapman thinks nothing of sharing his nightly shelter with any creature. Sometimes, he lingers at the house of Mrs. Price's parents. He speaks only once of women as deceivers. The apple trees prosper, and John Chapman becomes a legend. One can still see signs of him in the Ohio forests during the spring.

Somebody, appears in Something

Somebody skulks in the yard and stumbles over a stone. The narrator and her lover know he is there, but they kiss anyway. A man two towns away can no longer bear his life and commits suicide. No one lurks outside the window anymore. He is their lonely brother, their audience, their vine-wrapped spirit of the forest who grinned all night.

Lydia Osborn, appears in The Lost Children

Lydia Osborn is eleven-years-old when she never returns from heading after straying cows in southern Ohio. The search for Lydia reveals her bonnet near the hoof prints of Indian horses. The narrator is sorry for Lydia's parents and their grief. The narrator believes that Lydia knelt in the woods and drank the water of a cold stream and wanted to live.

Isaac Zane, appears in The Lost Children

Isaac Zane is stolen at age nine by the Wyandots who he lives among on the shores of the Mad River. As an adult, he walks into the world and finds himself lost there. He returns to the Mad River and the smile of Myeerah. Isaac builds a small house beside the Mad River where he lives with Myeerah for fifty years.

Tarhe, appears in The Lost Children

Tarhe is an old Wyandot chief who refuses to barter anything in the world to return Isaac Zane, his delight. He does it for his own sake, but because he is old and wise, the narrator likes to imagine he did it for all of us because he understands.

Myeerah, appears in The Lost Children

Myeerah's name means "the White Crane". She lives with Isaac Zane in a small house beside the Mad River for fifty years after her smile causes him to return from the world.

Stranger, appears in Flying

The stranger on the plane is beautiful. He has a Greek nose, and his smile is a Mexican fiesta. One feels the need to touch him before he leaves and is shaken by the strangeness of his touch.

Lewis, appears in Ghosts

Lewis kneels, in 1805 near the Bitterfoot Mountains, to watch the day old chicks in the sparrow's nest.

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