Review: Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: A selection of the poetry of Mary Oliver written between 1963 to 2015.

I have only discovered the poetry of Mary Oliver since her death in 2019. Isn’t that how it often has been with great writers? One of the ironies of this was that I lived in Oliver’s birthplace of Maple Heights, Ohio for nine years. How did I miss knowing of her for so long? She was even teaching at nearby Case Western Reserve during some of the time I lived there and it was during this time that she won the Pulitzer prize in 1984 for her collection American Primitive. I am glad at last to have found her, a writer roughly of my generation.

This collection is a good introduction to her work, a selection of her poetry written between 1963 and 2015 and published in 2017, a couple years before her passing. The book features over 200 of her poems arranged in reverse chronological order, most recent first. One of the most striking things one notices is that most of the poems are of sights on her daily walks near her home in Provincetown in New England. She writes of snakes and swans, of the pond near her home, of blueberries and violets, sunrises and sparrows. Her poetry is suffused with wonder at the simplest things, her sense of the oneness of all things and her desire to be one with them.

The transcendent is never far, sometimes in the Romantic awareness of the Ultimate in all things, sometimes in echoes of Christianity, writing of “Gethsemane” and Psalm 145. Her poem “Praying” (from Thirst, 2006) might do as well as anything to encapsulate the prayers of the “spiritual but not religious”:

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The reference “into thanks” reflects another theme running through her work, a profound thankfulness for life, even in its transience. In the concluding lines of “Why I Wake Early” (2004) she writes, “Watch, now, how I start the day/in happiness, in kindness.”

One of the striking things evident in the arrangement of the poems is that her later poems are much shorter, and to me carry more meaning in fewer words. Another morning poem, “I Wake Close to Morning” (Felicity, 2015) opens this selection:

Why do people keep asking to see
God's identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching
the kingdom of Solomon
Do you think she had to ask,
"Is this the place?"

Perhaps it is the “simplicity on the other side of complexity” or perhaps the waning of life’s energies that both slows her steps and leads her to choose her words as she writes in “The Gift” when she states: “So, be slow if you must, but let/the heart still play its true part.”

It would be wrong to give the impression that all here is sweetness and light. She writes of loneliness, and disappointment, and of death. One of the few poems of social comment is on the death of Tecumseh, one of the native leaders who fought displacement from the Ohio lands. Yet the dominant note is the wonder of the world around her that makes me wonder as to how much I miss on daily walks. We see, but do we pay attention? Oliver’s poems suggest she lived a life of paying attention

2 thoughts on “Review: Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: April 2021 | Bob on Books

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