A Bride Married to Amazement


December 14, 1992|By DIANE SCHARPER

"I want the reader to feel out the connections for himself, instead of my stating them explicitly,'' Mary Oliver says of some of her more recent poems. Such a technique allows for wider interpretation, she explains. It offers a greater range of expression.

Most of the poems in ''New And Selected Poems,'' Ms. Oliver's latest book, for which she recently won the 1992 National Book Award for Poetry, could be called rhapsodic. The voice of ''When Death Comes'' suggests Ms. Oliver's predominant tone: ''When it's [life] over, I want to say . . . I was a bride married to amazement. I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.''

Ms. Oliver, currently writer-in-residence at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, has won numerous awards, including the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Critics have praised her intuitive sense of nature's elemental forces. They've described her poems as clear, simple, yet stunning. You wonder why other poets cloak themselves in such fussy veils, one reviewer commented. James Dickey noticed the ''quiet and mysterious spell'' exerted by Ms. Oliver's work. ''It is a true spell,'' he said, ''the enchantment of the true maker.''

These poems do exert a spell. It is a spell cast by love. All poets are in love with language. Ms. Oliver is also in love with the world, though she warns us, ''What blazes a trail here is not necessarily pretty.'' It is, however, always ecstatic. ''How shall I touch you,'' she asks, ''unless is it everywhere.'' (''The Gardens'')

Because these are love poems, they are poems in the strictest and oldest sense. Their vision is Romantic, Transcendental, Sacred. It is the vision of Whitman and Wordsworth. It goes back even further, to mankind's earliest encounter with the magic power of the word. ''What is the name of the deep breath I would take over and over for all of us?'' Ms. Oliver asks in ''Sunrise.'' ''Call it whatever you want, it is happiness, it is another one of the ways to enter fire.''

All these poems enter fire. Doing this, they suggest the original function of poetry, as healing chant, love song and prayer. In them, we share the feelings that gave expression to the first poems. ''When I woke I was alone,'' Ms. Oliver says, ''I was thinking: so this is how you swim inward, so this is how you flow outward, so this is how you pray.'' (''Five a.m. in the Pinewoods'')

Besides warmth, these poems also exude intensity. Speaking of the world, this poet writes, ''I want to believe I am looking into the white fire of a great mystery. I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing -- that the light is everything . . . And I do.'' (''The Pond'')

Something genuinely religious is going on here. Ms. Oliver looks at the mysteries of life, death and regeneration. What are we? What connects us? Her poems sing to the wilderness within us and outside us. ''What we know [is that] we are more than blood -- we are more than our hunger and yet . . . when the burning begins the most thoughtful among us dreams of hurrying down . . . into the fire . . .'' (''Blossom'')

Reading these poems, one can almost see Ms. Oliver as the priestess in the sacred grove. She is the prophetic one, the wise woman, the medicine woman, the midwife assisting at the birth of the body and soul, truly the poet. What she says has a magic and evocative quality. ''These are the woods you love,'' she writes, ''where the secret name of every death is life again . . . Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle refinements, elegant and easeful, wait to rise and flourish.'' (''Skunk Cabbage'')

Describing the free-verse style of most her poems, Ms. Oliver writes that she is fascinated with longer, less-focused, more leisurely work. ''Instead of taking the reader by the hand and running him down the hill,'' she explains, ''I want to lead him into a house of many rooms, and leave him alone in each of them.''

The poems in this book are rooms. We enter them and hear Ms. Oliver's voice: rhythmic, colloquial, intimate: ''There is no end, believe me! to the inventions of summer,'' it says, ''to the happiness your body is willing to bear.'' (''Lightning'')

Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.


Out of the sump rise the marigolds.

From the rim of the marsh, muslin with mosquitoes,

rises the egret, in his cloud-cloth.

Through the soft rain, like mist, and mica,

the withered acres of moss begin again.

When I have to die, I would like to die

on a day of rain --

long rain, slow rain, the kind you think will never end.

And I would like to have whatever little ceremony there might be

take place while the rain is shoveled and shoveled out of the sky,

and anyone who comes must travel, slowly and with thought,

as around the edges of the great swamp.

The Fish

The first fish

I ever caught

would not lie down

quiet in the pail

but flailed and sucked

at the burning

amazement of the air

and died

in the slow pouring off

of rainbows. Later

I opened his both and separated

the flesh from the bones

and ate him. Now the sea

is in me: I am the fish, the fish

glitters in me; we are

risen, tangled together, certain to fall

back into the sea. Out of pain,

and pain,

and more pain

we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished

the mystery.

(''New and Selected Poems,'' Mary Oliver (Beacon Press)

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