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

Review: Upstream

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UpstreamMary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016.

Summary: A collection of essays on nature and literary figures and how we might both lose and understand ourselves as we interact with them.

One of my reading goals of 2020 is to read some of the work of Mary Oliver, who I only learned of upon her death in 2019. One of the facts that made her even more interesting to me was that she was born in Maple Heights, Ohio, a small suburb on the southeast side of Cleveland. The fact that she was an Ohio-born author makes her of interest to me. The fact that I lived for nine years in Maple Heights makes her doubly interesting.

What I discovered in these essays was a writer not unlike Annie Dillard in her reflections on nature, but one who could do just as much in far fewer words. Perhaps that is the discipline of being a poet. Every word matters. She writes of trees, and wild flowers, connects them to her writing life, and to life itself. The first, and title essay ends with this striking aphorism that I will probably chew on the rest of 2020: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She writes as well about literary figures, particularly in moving terms about Walt Whitman who was a model to her as she began writing poetry. The others are Emerson, Poe, and Wordsworth–romantics and transcendentalists–those who (Emerson and Wordsworth at least) connected goodness in nature and humanity, and access to the ultimate through our intuitions of the world. For Poe, it is the wild argument of everyone of us against the universe.

In “Staying Alive” we learn about her perspective that moved from nature and walks with a succession of dogs in the course of life to her interior world (and back again):

I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly. I read by day and into the night. I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes. I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness.

“Power and Time” explores the creative and intellectual work of a writer, and the loyalty to the work required of the writer. At other times, she arrests our attention with the things she has seen in her meanderings–the beauty of a bluefish, the wonders of a pond, or a ponderous turtle, from which she takes some but not all eggs, enough for a meal. One essay, “Swoon,” describes the life of a household spider, laying eggs, feeding on a trapped cricket, and the “billowing forth” of tiny spiders.

“Building the House” seems a metaphor for the passages of one’s life. Oliver describes building a small house by herself out of salvaged materials, writing a few poems there, and then being done with it. She remarks on her transition from the “busyness of the body” to “the tricks of the mind” perhaps tracing the journey we all take from the vitality of youth to the ponderings of later years that might be mistaken for wisdom.

Nature, the life of writing poetry and communing with the works of others, the physical business of living, all reflect Oliver’s own quest for the transcendent. In “Winter Hours” she concludes:

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

The arc of Mary Oliver’s life, which began in Maple Heights, Ohio, was mostly lived out with her partner of over 40 years, M (Molly Malone Cook) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, until her final years in Florida. The collection concludes with a description of the glory and decline of this fishing town into a tourist attraction and her gratitude for life in this place:

I don’t know if I am heading toward heaven or that other, dark place, but I know I have already lived in heaven for fifty years. Thank you, Provincetown.