Never afraid to shed the pretense of academic poetry, never shy of letting the power of an image lie in unadorned language, Mary Oliver offers us poems of arresting beauty that reflect on the power of love and the great gifts of the natural world. Inspired by the familiar lines from William Wordsworth, “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears,” she uncovers the evidence presented to us daily by nature, in rivers and stones, willows and field corn, the mockingbird’s “embellishments,” or the last hours of darkness.
Mary Jane Oliver was an American poet who won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is inspired by nature, rather than the human world, stemming from her lifelong passion for solitary walks in the wild.
Years ago I asked a student in an undergraduate poetry class if she liked Mary Oliver's work.
"She the lady who write about bears and otters and her dog?" my asked.
"Her," I said.
"Nah. Don't really like her," she replied.
This is possible? I asked myself. It is possible. How? I wondered.
More recently a friend said of Mary Oliver "you love her or you hate her."
How? I wondered.
I have just read Evidence, and I have an answer.
It's not possible.
Oliver is honest, real, tangible. She is taking you for a walk with her in the woods, along the shore, out back at dusk. Be with her in that natural world where everything is significant and full of grace because it goes about the profoundly mysterious business of being what it is without question. It's a lost art for us in our noisy, cut off, indvidual, and ridiculously complicated worlds.
I can't go near her without quoting her. There is nothing else to say. Take this from "Mysteries, Yes," in her 19th book Evidence:
Let me keep my stance, always, from those who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say "Look!" and laugh in astonishment, And bow their heads.
Life is beautiful. And, as my friend says, Mary Oliver makes it look easy.
I imagined the book arriving in the mail Friday, and then reading it on Saturday. Well, when I biked home Thursday by 6:10 p.m. I found 2 boxes from Amazon at my door. I got in, doffed my gear and drank some water. I opened the boxes. The second housed Individuation in Fairy Tales, so excited to read it this weekend. The first held Mary Oliver's Evidence. I walked to the frig. Poured a glass of Chenin Blanc Vionigeir and started reading randomly. I cooked some pasta laced with cheese and herbs, and continued reading. I completed it by 8:50 p.m. I never read any collection so intently, so quickly. She wonders how many summers are left, I wonder how many more collections can she give. Selfish of both of us. It makes me wonder at the wild life in Providence. Are there rivers there? Or do they harken to days in Vermont, Pennsylvania, Virginia or her native Ohio? She meets wolves, mockingbirds, owls, an otter, grieves for Luke and misses Molly, don't we all?
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of the lambs. How rivers and stones are forever in allegiance with gravity while we ourselves dream of rising. How two hands touch and the bonds will never be broken. How people come, from delight or the scars of damage, to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say "Look!" and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.
~ from the book
Li Po and the Moon
There is the story of the old Chinese poet: At night in his boat he went drinking and dreaming And singing
Then drowned as he reached for the moon’s reflection. Well, probably each of us, at some time, has been As desperate.
I read this when it came out in 2009 and just reread it. For right here and now, it's my favorite book, period. Nearly every poem here is simply wondrous, from the first four-line poem: "There is the heaven we enter/ through institutional grace/ and there are the yellow finches bathing and singing/ in the lowly puddle." Her writing has a Zen eye for nature and a Christian heart for compassion. She sees the joy and grief in everything and inspires the reader to pay more attention and live more fully. I’ve read 10 or so other Mary Oliver books, and this is the one to start with, in my opinion.
The problem with poetry is that when you love it you want to read all of it at once and yet at the same time, you want to let each line sink in. Mary Oliver’s work is no different. I already have a second book checked out and will pick up several more. Her simplicity and depth - especially through the eye of the natural world and personal experiences - are beautiful and moving and carry such deep truths worth the time to reflect on.
Mary Oliver reminds me of the cards at Hallmark that are labeled "simply stated" - she doesn't apologize for not saying more than needs to be said, meaning some poems are 3 lines at most. Simplicity should not be confused for nothingness, because she is remarkably eloquent.
For instance, "We Shake with Joy":
We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time they have, these two housed as they are in the same body.
My favorite of this volume is "To Begin With, the Sweet Grass," a poem in multiple numbered segments. Some little clips:
For one thing leads to another. Soon you will notice how stones shine underfoot. Eventually tides will be the only calendar you believe in.
And someone's face, whom you love, will be as a star both intimate and ultimate, and you will be both heart-shaken and respectful. (2)
And, if you have not been enchanted by this adventure - your life -- what would do for you? (6)
I particularly like the poem about Schubert, the poem about the moon rowing away into the night and the poem about a meeting with a deer she calls Swirler shortly before his death--the poem ends "In my house there are a hundred half-done poems./ Each of us leaves an unfinished life."
"He takes such small steps/to express our longings." Schubert
"And, bending close,/as we all dream of doing,/she rows with her white arms/through the dark water..." Moon and Water
"And what do I risk to tell you this, which is all that I know?/Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world." To Begin With, the Sweet Grass
"While I sit here in a house filled with books,/ideas, doubts, hesitations./And still, pressed deep into my mind, the river/keeps coming, touching me, passing by on its/long journey, its pale, infallible voice/singing." At the River Clarion
"A few words/like water/on a stone./Cool and beautiful/like water on a stone." If You Say It Right, It Helps the Heart to Bear It.
First reading 1/30/11-2/7/11 Second reading 11/18/14-11/25/14
I still feel unbearable shame when I think that on my visit to Bennington, not yet 18, I sat in on Mary Oliver's class and got into an argument with her about whether there are any worthwhile women poets. I said: no. I didn't know anything about poetry or anything else, and she is Mary Oliver, the sweetest, wisest woman and an incredible poet. Her poetry punctuated my life-planning retreat at Earth Sanctuary with my sister this weekend, and I wish I could apologize to her personally for being an arrogant, ignorant little shit. Two lines that stick with me: "Will the owl bite off it's own wings?" and "I ask you again: if you have not been enchanted by this adventure--your life-- what would do for you?"
I surprise myself by connecting so readily with the works of Mary Oliver: I, who spent an entire college course on the Romantics digging myself out from under ruined cottages and Aeolian harps. Yet, by and large, I do connect. Oliver is a "nature poet" in the sense that she places great value on details of the physical world, on taking the time to notice and prize elements of existence often considered small or insignificant. She argues with great passion that these details are actually of great importance, that in them dwell the complex raw material of life, in all its messy joy. I think it's the combination of nuance and deceptively simple language that really gets me about Oliver, and saves her from coming off as saccharine. She is capable of holding within herself two seemingly opposed facts, and presenting them calmly and beautifully, united in a single image. One of my favorite examples of this in Evidence is "Prince Buzzard":
Prince Buzzard, I took you, so high in the air, for a narrow boat and two black sails. You were drifting
in the depths of the air wherever you wanted to go, and when you came down with your spoony mouth
and your red head and your creaking wings to the lamb dead, dead, dead
in the field of spring I knew it was hunger that brought you -- yet you went about it
so slowly, settling with hunched wings and silent as the grass itself
over the lamb's white body -- it seemed a ceremony, a pause
as though something in the quick of your own body had come out to give thanks
for the dark work that was yours, which wasn't to be done easily or quickly, but thoroughly --
and indeed by the time summer opened its green harbors ��the field was nothing but flowers, flowers, flowers, from shore to shore
Here Oliver observes, not just the relatively facile truth that life leads into death leads into life, but that the work of death is worthy of care, thoroughness, and thanks. Or maybe the issue is not so much one of worth, but simply of being: the work of death is done with a slow, careful completeness, and the speaker is a witness to that. Oliver is alive to the spirit of the natural world, yet she walks that Romantic line between perceiving and half-creating the world around her: the buzzard pauses, she writes, "as though something / in the quick of your own body / had come out..." Does the buzzard's seeming thankfulness dwell within the buzzard, or within the speaker? Or perhaps a little of each, or in the nexus of the two? Oliver's poems insist on a genuine, bone-deep connection with nature, but they also describe a necessary distance between the human speaker and the world observed. A lyric depicting time the speaker spent with a river otter is titled "Almost a Conversation"; another poem describes a mockingbird's indifference to any human listeners who might overhear his song. In "Moon and Water," Oliver portrays a deep, quiet connection with a natural entity, but also the limits of that connection:
I wake and spend the last hours of darkness with no one
but the moon. She listens to my complaints like the good
companion she is and comforts me surely with her light. But she, like everyone,
has her own life. So finally I understand that she has turned away, is no longer listening.
She wants me to refold myself into my own life. And, bending close,
as we all dream of doing, she rows with her white arms through the dark water which she adores
I love the image, here, of "refolding" oneself into one's own life after a period apart, and I love Oliver's perception of the moon as an entity helpful but aloof, with her own need, in the end, to return to the things which nourish her, "which she adores."
Oliver's language is hard to resist: it's accessible and even conversational, but distilled into a gorgeous precision. Occasionally there is a phrase reminiscent, to me, of a Sappho fragment:
"year after honey-rich year" "summer / opened its harbors" "one of those sweet, abrasive blades."
I can almost taste such lines; they fall onto the tongue like, as the poets themselves might say, drops of nectar. Savoring them, I find myself slowing down and lingering over their cadences, luxuriating in the stillness they leave in their wake. Oliver's habit of ending her poems without periods, letting them settle gradually and quietly in the reader's mind, like ripples on water, adds to this effect.
Occasionally Oliver does get a bit dances-with-the-daffodils for my taste. Evidence's "Violets," in particular, crosses some kind of a hippie-Romantic line for me, eulogizing about the lost flowers of childhood, long since bulldozed to make way for development. I also have trouble connecting with the poems in Evidence which use overtly religious language: "More Honey Locust," for example, perceives in the blossom "a prayer for us all"; there are poems called "Hallelujah" and "Prayer," and one that plays with the existence of angels. It's not that I think this kind of language is inappropriate or in any way irrelevant, but being a very secular person myself, I find it distracting. I can deduce from context, intellectually, what sort of a God concept Oliver herself might have, and I must say that it seems thoughtful and hard-won. But as I have none myself, I find that I am jerked out of the visceral experience of the poem whenever religious language makes an appearance.
But these are personal quibbles. Evidence is a masterful collection of poems, and one that only gets more lovely and thought-provoking the more I pore through it.
I remember a time in college when I was trying on pretention as a way of being and I dismissed Oliver's work - too simple, too obvious, too plain.
We make such funny errors sometimes.
I think the things that made me dismiss her when I was being difficult for difficulty's sake are all of the elements that make me love her so deeply now. A keen eye, a thrill in the exquisite ordinariness of the world. Gratitude as an undercurrent. Her poetry comes from a deep well of watching and loving the world. It nourishes me.
In this collection, she's keenly aware of being old, of not having as much time, of the nearness of death. And yet, with characteristic gratitude, she offers to us the things she's seen - a gosling who never grows wings, the holiness of trees, growing grass, a river singing. Evidence - of what? What else except how lucky we are to be here, even a short time, provided we're paying attention?
In the final poem, "Another Summer Begins", she asks, "How many/ do I still have?" Then, in a typical quiet and magnanimous gesture, she puts on her boots, and jacket, leaving her questions, and even hope ("that tender advisement") behind, and goes "to sleep/ all this night/ in some unnamed, flowered corner/of the pasture. "
Another book I read recommended reading poetry by female poets. I checked out a bunch from my library. This is the first one I read. I enjoyed it. The simplicity is refreshing particularly after reading a series of complicated novels and nonfiction. I'm really looking forward to reading more poetry books.
This book reminds me of when we lived in Central New York and would go canoeing on Beaver Lake. At the time we lived there, I was taking a creative writing class that required us to write haiku. Oliver's poems in this book are formless. I guess they call it free verse. I enjoyed the images the poems portray and the memories that came along with them.
My favorites: -“Swans” -“Heart Poem” -“Thinking of Swirler” -“There are a Lot if Mockingbirds in This Book” - “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass” - “I Want to Write Something So Simply” -“Evidence” -“At the River Clarion”
You can never go wrong with Mary Oliver. A couple of the poems in this collection brought me to tears. In depth, she matches Rumi and e. e. cummings, but of course, her fans already know that. Thank God for poets of the past and of the present.