The BOOKPRESS March 1999

Clarifying Light

Edward Dougherty

West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems.
Mary Oliver.
Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
63 pages, $21 cloth, $13 paper.

In her collection of essays, Blue Pastures, Mary Oliver writes about her debt to Walt Whitman: "But first and foremost I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing—an artifact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness—wonderful as that part is. I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company." When I read my poems in public, I usually include others’ work, often a piece by Mary Oliver because of this quality. Her work provides "a place to enter, and in which to feel."

Her poetry is a place teeming with life, and this latest collection is no exception—owls and butterflies, pilot snakes and foxes, sand dabs and maple trees, poetry and love, death and the blue ocean. Even the phrasing is charged with energy, with life-force: roses in the wind have "honeyed seizures;" the fox is admired noting "the flounce of his teeth;" even abstractions move in bodies, like ambition who says, Listen...why don’t you get going? "nervously shifting her weight from one boot to another."

When I read a single Mary Oliver poem aloud, listeners sense a part of themselves waking up, feeling. This is even more true when one reads a whole collection. Robyn Selman put it this way when reviewing New and Selected Poems "one can’t help noticing the day when one reads Mary Oliver..." We begin by sensing what is on the page but often, having been tuned by her words, we regain an intuition of our own lives. Such a transfer is rare in today’s poetry.

Her work has been called "sentimental," "romantic," but also "impersonal," and "visionary." By her own admission, she puts her allegiance with Whitman and the power of poetry to deal emotionally with life. Tolstoy said that "art argues in a way that the rational mind does not comprehend;" this could also be said of Mary Oliver’s poems. Because they approach through feeling—and because of the current trend towards more syntactically complex poems—her poems stand accused of "sentimentality." And yet, at poetry reading after reading, her direct, evocative poems involve listeners in wonderful and rewarding ways. Then, in the recursive deepening of private reading, that first motion felt at a fresh listening is rewarded with philosophical musings on the most weighty spiritual issues, death, reverence and wonder, and the purpose of being alive in the world.

Oliver said in an interview that the poems from Twelve Moons through House of Light form "a unit." New and Selected Poems gathers them all up, like an autumn harvest bundle. Then came the insightful Poetry Handbook and essays in Blue Pastures. While the poems in her next book, White Pine, include some formal innovations, the overall structure of the volume, framed by the four seasons, feels repetitious of Twelve Moons.

West Wind, on the other hand, is Mary Oliver at her finest. The dazzling language and attention to detail I’ve come to expect in her work is here, as is the apparent leisure of the speaker which makes entering her poems seem so easy. The precision of line, image, and rhythm continue and are enhanced by the innovations from White Pine.

"Today is a day like any other: twentyfour hours, a little sunshine, a little rain," Oliver writes in "Black Oaks." But in these poems, daily events are seen with piercing clarity. It is death, the attentive angel in nature, the one we fear and hide from most, who hauls everything out of "mere incidence into/ the lush of meaning" ("At Round Pond"). That phrase, "the lush of meaning"! I still marvel at such lively language.

One prose poem late in the book, about a cricket that comes indoors for "the most prized gift of the gods: warmth," is a deft portrait of us all. With warmth and food enough, the cricket "got used to hope....It thought: how sufficient are these empty rooms!...and drew a little music from its dark thighs. As though the twilight underneath the refrigerator were the world. As though the winter would never come."

This comes from Part Two of "West Wind," the thirteen-section title poem, which is a mixture of prose and verse. Oliver moves in and out of her usual themes smoothly but with the added layer of a love-relationship. In the clarifying light a close friendship with death brings, small gestures and daily wonders draw our attention, evoke our gratitude, and help shape our priorities. This idea moves under and through the series so that the final lines of the last section ring with certainty, not sentimentality: "I am thinking of you./ I am always thinking of you."

Readers of Mary Oliver will find in this collection the culmination of a poet deeply devoted to her craft. Her voice is sure and inviting, a guide through this temple of poems. She leads us through them and the world in them, to the back-gate in the longer final poem, "Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches." There she offers us, again, our own lives when she writes: "Well, there is time left—/ fields everywhere invite you into them."


Edward Dougherty lives and works in Elmira, NY. His poems have appeared in Poetry East, Cream City Review, West Branch, Mississippi Valley Review, and many other periodicals.

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