Oliver speaks nature's subtle language

December 27, 1992|By Anne Whitehouse


Mary Oliver.

Beacon Press.

255 pages. $20.

Admirers of Mary Oliver's fluent and fluid poetry will be grateful for this volume, which brings together more than three decades of her work. Arranged in reverse chronological order are 30 new poems plus selections from eight previous books.

An immediate pleasure of Ms. Oliver's poetry is its stunning and memorable imagery, a quality which came to flower in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection "American Primitive" (1983). "Trees/glitter like castles/of ribbons," she writes in "First Snow" from that volume.

The new poems included in this volume -- which recently won the National Book Award -- reveal her powers in full fruition -- for example, in these lines from "Alligator Poem," where the poet describes being startled by an alligator in Florida:

The water, that circle of shattered glass,

healed itself with a slow whisper

and lay back

with the back-lit light of polished steel,

and the birds, in the endless waterfalls of the trees,

shook open the snowy pleats of their wings, and drifted

away . . .

Like James Wright, a fellow Ohioan poet whom she acknowledges as one of her masters, Mary Oliver has sought to write in a colloquial American voice, which, as she says in a 1990 interview, "should, or can, imaginatively become the reader's inner voice." (Eleanor Swanson, "The Language of Dreams: An Interview with Mary Oliver," Bloomsbury Review).

But whereas Wright described stunted and desolate lives unfolding amid the mining towns along the Ohio River and finds pathos in the failures of slick and shallow men such as Warren G. Harding, Ms. Oliver rarely approaches human beings' social and political natures directly. Rather, she is a descendant of Wright the lyrical, celebratory poet. Her poems recall the natural world, whose miracles are occurring around us all the time, but which we often fail to notice.

When Ms. Oliver is not teaching (she is Banister Writer-In-Residence at Sweet Briar College), she lives on Cape Cod. Its landscape, with its black ponds where lilies "rise/like pale poles/with their wrapped beaks of lace" ("The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water") figures prominently in her poems. Like Wright, she is a philosopher; she uses nature, as she says, "emblematically" (Bloomsbury interview). Her poetry is concerned with how to live meaningfully. As she writes in "When Death Comes":

When it's over, I don't want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

pTC I don't want to end up simply having visited this world

In her poems, attention and contemplation become acts of redemption. She enables us to see intently and urges us to feel deeply. "Every morning I walk like this around/the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart/ever close, I am as good as dead," she claims in "Landscape."

Hers is not a sugar-coated nature; on the contrary, predators such as owls, herons and egrets, snakes and alligators make frequent appearances, as in this scene from "Nature:" ". . . the owl hunted,/the beads of blood/scarcely dry on the hooked beak before/hunger seized him/and he fell, snipping/the life from some plush breather,/and floated away . . ."

It seems that Ms. Oliver's poems are least successful when she reaches so far for comparisons and contrasts that the strain is apparent, the rhetorical devices call attention to themselves and the effects feel labored and cute. This is the case in "Singapore," where she declares, "A poem should always have birds in it." These poems feel like exercises or experiments; they sacrifice subtlety for a curious bombast.

At their best, her poems are reverent, reverberant and organic, as they unfold out of themselves. Writing of the "old, buttery fingers" of the sun, of the wind's "glossy voice shouting instructions" or of "the gritty lightning of [the starfishes'] touch," she finds metaphorical truths to amaze us.

In a 1990 interview, Ms. Oliver said, "I am trying in my poems to vanish and have the reader be the experiencer. I do not want to be there. It is not even a walk we take together." Yet this settlement is disingenuous, for there is in her poems a tension between the poet's persona and the world, in which the individual absorbs the world through contemplation and then reinvents it without her presence: "What does the world/mean to you if you can't trust it/to go on shining when you're/not there?" she asks rhetorically in "October," and continues, "One morning/the fox came down the hill, glittering and confident,/and didn't see me -- and I thought:/so this is the world./I'm not in it./It is beautiful." It is the gift of her poetry to have communicated the beauty she finds in the world and made it unforgettable.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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