by Mary Oliver
I need a moment away from unceasing word drip of debates about the election, about whether Elena Ferrante has the right to privacy, about whether Bob Dylan writes "Literature." I need a moment, more than a moment, in the steady and profound company of Mary Oliver and I think you might need one too.
Oliver's latest book is a collection of essays called Upstream. Most of these pieces have been published elsewhere, but reshuffled here they form a kind of sporadic spiritual autobiography.
If that label sounds precious, you don't know your Oliver. As much as she's a visionary poet, she's also the quintessential tough old broad who finds traces of awe in, for example, scooping out the shining wet pink bladder of a codfish, or getting down on all fours with her dog out in the woods and, "for an hour or so ... see[ing] the world from the level of the grasses."
These essays are the product of a lifetime that Oliver has spent closely reading nature, as well as the work of other writers. The rewards of paying attention, says Oliver, became clear to her early on. In an opening essay called "Staying Alive," about escaping from her difficult childhood into nature and literature, Oliver recalls:
[T]his is what I learned: that the world's otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.
There's hardly a page in my copy of Upstream that isn't folded down or underlined and scribbled on, so charged is Oliver's language. What her language is not is sentimental or confessional.
As a teenager coming of age in Ohio in the 1950s, Oliver says she felt painfully different; certainly one could assume her sexuality and literary ambitions set her apart. But, rather than supplying biographical details, Oliver conveys the raw essence of her isolation in an essay entitled, "My Friend, Walt Whitman."
Mary Oliver has received many honors for her poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Award. Mariana Cook/Penguin Press hide caption
Mary Oliver has received many honors for her poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Award.Mariana Cook/Penguin Press
Oliver calls Whitman "the brother I did not have". In her youth, Oliver says, "I lived many hours within the lit circle of [Whitman's] certainty and his bravado." Oliver's affinity with Whitman and other outdoorsy types like Wordsworth and Emerson makes sense, but her empathy for claustrophobic tale-of–terror-master Edgar Allan Poe is surprising, until you remember the emotional isolation she hints at in those essays about childhood. Her essay here on Poe turns out to be the most compassionate piece on him I've ever read.
The second half of this collection takes Oliver through middle age and beyond: she's 81 now. A standout is the essay called "Bird," where Oliver recalls finding an injured seagull on the winter beach in Provincetown, where she lived for many years.
She carries it back to the house she shared with her late partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, and, together, they settle the gull on an "island of towels," near a glass door that overlooks the harbor.
The gull's injured body, Oliver says, is "a shattered elegance," one wing broken, the other hurt, both feet withered. Nevertheless, the gull is responsive, even playful: he looks forward every day to a dip in the bathtub and then sunning himself and having his feathers smoothed by visitors. Weeks pass, the gull loses an atrophied leg, a wing, still he hangs on. Oliver writes:
But the rough-and-tumble work of dying was going on, even in the quiet body. ... When I picked him up the muscles along the breast were so thin I feared for the tender skin lying across the crest of the bone. And still the eyes were full of the spices of amusement.
He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not fact; this is the other part of knowing something, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief.
Attaining that "other part of knowing something" has been Oliver's life work: her poems and essays are her own full-throated response to the question she poses at the very end of one of her best known poems, "The Summer Day":
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?"
Poet Mary Oliver is an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” wrote Maxine Kumin in the Women’s Review of Books, “particularly to its lesser-known aspects.” Oliver’s verse focuses on the quiet of occurrences of nature: industrious hummingbirds, egrets, motionless ponds, “lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes.” Kumin noted that Oliver “stands quite comfortably on the margins of things, on the line between earth and sky, the thin membrane that separates human from what we loosely call animal.” Oliver’s poetry has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and a Lannan Literary Award. Reviewing Dream Work (1986) for the Nation, critic Alicia Ostriker numbered Oliver among America’s finest poets, as “visionary as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson.”
Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College, but did not receive a degree from either institution. As a young poet, Oliver was deeply influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay and briefly lived in Millay’s home, helping Norma Millay organize her sister’s papers. Oliver is notoriously reticent about her private life, but it was during this period that she met her long-time partner, Molly Malone Cook. The couple moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the surrounding Cape Cod landscape has had a marked influence on Oliver’s work. Known for its clear and poignant observations and evocative use of the natural world, Oliver’s poetry is firmly rooted in place and the Romantic nature tradition. Her work received early critical attention; American Primitive (1983), her fifth book, won the Pulitzer Prize. According to Bruce Bennetin the New York Times Book Review, American Primitive, “insists on the primacy of the physical.” Bennet commended Oliver’s “distinctive voice and vision” and asserted that the “collection contains a number of powerful, substantial works.” Holly Prado of the Los Angeles Times Book Review also applauded Oliver’s original voice, writing that American Primitive “touches a vitality in the familiar that invests it with a fresh intensity.”
Dream Work (1986) continues Oliver’s search to “understand both the wonder and pain of nature” according to Prado in a later review for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Ostriker considered Oliver “among the few American poets who can describe and transmit ecstasy, while retaining a practical awareness of the world as one of predators and prey.” For Ostriker, Dream Work is ultimately a volume in which Oliver moves “from the natural world and its desires, the ‘heaven of appetite’...into the world of historical and personal suffering...She confronts as well, steadily,” Ostriker continued, “what she cannot change.”
The transition from engaging the natural world to engaging more personal realms is also evident in New and Selected Poems (1992), which won the National Book Award. The volume contains poems from eight of Oliver’s previous volumes as well as previously unpublished, newer work. Susan Salter Reynolds, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, noticed that Oliver’s earliest poems are almost always oriented towards nature, but seldom examine the self and are almost never personal. In contrast, Oliver appears constantly in later works. But as Reynolds noted “this self-consciousness is a rich and graceful addition.” Just as the contributor for Publishers Weekly called particular attention to the pervasive tone of amazement with regard to things seen in Oliver’s work, Reynolds found Oliver’s writings to have a “Blake-eyed revelatory quality.” Oliver summed up her desire for amazement in her poem “When Death Comes” from New and Selected Poems: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
Oliver continues her celebration of the natural world in later collections, including Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems (1999), Why I Wake Early (2004), New and Selected Poems, Volume 2 (2004), and Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (2010). Critics have compared Oliver to other great American lyric poets and celebrators of nature, including Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Muir, and Walt Whitman. “Oliver’s poetry,” wrote Poetry contributor Richard Tillinghast in a review of White Pine (1994) “floats above and around the schools and controversies of contemporary American poetry. Her familiarity with the natural world has an uncomplicated, nineteenth-century feeling.”
A prolific writer of both poetry and prose, Oliver publishes a new collection every year or two. Her main themes continue to be the intersection between the human and the natural world, as well as the limits of human consciousness and language in articulating such a meeting. Jeanette McNew in Contemporary Literature described “Oliver’s visionary goal,” as “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…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.’”
Mary Oliver held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College until 2001. In addition to such major awards as the Pulitzer and National Book Award, Oliver has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has also won the American Academy of Arts & Letters Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Prize and Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts.