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: Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout. New York: Random House, 2008.

Summary: A collection of short stories set in a small coastal village in Maine, centering around an aging and abrasive middle school teacher, Olive Kitteridge.

Olive Kitteridge is characterized at one point in this book as having “a way about her that was absolutely without apology.” Her son at one point described her moods as capricious and that she never accepted responsibility for the ways she affected others. She was tall and imposing, irascible and difficult. And yet. She could cut through niceties to help a young man ready to take his life, or truly sympathize with a widow while her own husband was a vegetable. What you saw was what you got, and yet there were hidden depths to her that could catch you by surprise.

Olive Kitteridge and her husband Henry live in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a middle school math teacher and Henry a pharmacist. Elizabeth Strout develops Olive’s character through a series of chronologically arranged short stories featuring different people in the town. Olive is not in every one of them but recurs throughout the book, intersecting with a number of the characters as she retires from teaching, sharing life with Henry, a most accommodating husband, as they go through life’s changes and grief’s, including a son for whom they built a house, only for him to move across country at his wife’s behest, only for her to divorce him, and then for him to return to New York and a new marriage. Olive grieves so much she won’t drive past the house, leading to an improbable adventure at the local ER.

The stories explore the challenges and comforts of marital love, the infidelities of mind and body of different villagers, including Henry at one point for his pharmacist assistant Denise. There are heartbreaks and verbal wounds that are not easily healed. But one thing you will never find is hypocrisy from Olive. One of the highlights was when Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law making fun of her clothes. Most of us would fume and pretend we had not heard. Olive goes into the daughter-in-law’s closet and deviously ruins several articles of clothing. She can be maddeningly matter-of-fact in her acceptance of life’s hardships. What else ought one expect of life?

Despite all the flaws and foibles and failures of individuals, Strout portrays a community that somehow coheres, that is there for each other in the hardest moments. She creates a place and a character rooted in that place in Olive–the houses she builds, the tulips she plants, the donut shop she and Henry loved to get donuts from. Olive and the others endure loss and glimpse their mortality, making there way through life and finding what comfort they can in each other.

In the end, we see a character who seemed utterly certain of herself, who does not change, but turns her honesty upon herself and comes to more settled terms with the person she is, and the possibilities of her remaining life. There is both fine writing and fine insight into the human condition here.

Review: Evicted


EvictedMatthew Desmond. New York: Broadway Books, 2017.

Summary: A look at the private rental market in impoverished communities and the dynamics of eviction, why it happens and the impact of evictions on the evicted and the communities in which they live.

Imagine this scenario with me. You are living below the poverty line in a city where there is a several year wait for subsidized housing. That may not even be possible because of your credit record, or because of bad decisions that resulted in convictions. So you turn to the private rental market and try to find a landlord who won’t look too hard at these things and give you a chance. Often the property is substandard and you fear to complain too much because the landlord might just kick you out if you get behind on the rent. And it is easy for that to happen when rent gets 70 to 80 percent of your income and you have to figure out how to pay all your other bills and eat on the rest. Often you struggle along for months, only to have a sudden trip to the emergency room, a car breakdown, or a death in the family destroy the fragile equilibrium of your life.

You receive notice of eviction proceedings. Or your landlord agrees to return your security deposit if you are out of your apartment by the end of the month. You don’t understand the system and their are no court appointed lawyers for evictions. The court finds in favor of your landlord, and then the dreaded knock comes. A sheriff’s deputy is at your door along with movers, who will move your belongings onto the curb, or into storage you have to pay for or lose your possessions.

You search desperately for another place to live, asking family, friends, church for help. Sometimes they do if they can, and you haven’t asked too many times. You look at 60, 70, 80 places and no one will take a chance because of your eviction. You might lose your job, if you have one, because of time away from work. You might lose benefits because of your changes of address. Your children’s education suffers. Neighborhoods suffer as well when tenants are transient, and property quality declines.

This is the story Matthew Desmond tells in Evicted, through the eyes of eight individuals or families, living on the north and south sides of Milwaukee who face evictions. He also introduces us to two landlords, Sherrena Tarver and Tobin Charney. Charney runs a fleabag trailer park that is one of the worst in Milwaukee. Tarver owns rental properties throughout the city, and while at times she tries to help tenants out and puts on a show of care, she says, “Love don’t pay the bills.” Yet both net close to half a million a year. As Tarver puts it, “the ‘hood is good.”

Probably two of the most moving are Arleen who tries to provide for her two sons on the twenty percent left after her rent, and finds herself being evicted by Shereen just before Christmas, and Scott, a former nurse with job-related injuries that left him addicted to opioids, and lost him his license. Both go through harrowing efforts to find housing when evicted, and the crushing toll of this experience on the human spirit is hard to read about. We learn that landlords often deny rentals to prospective tenants with children, who are not a protected class in the Fair Housing Act of 1988.

This is not an easy book to read. It honestly portrays both the structures that hold people in poverty and the all-too-human choices people sometimes make that exacerbate those situations. At the same time, Desmond, particularly in his epilogue, raises questions about whether affordable, sound housing is a human right. He observes that we have decided to provide universal public education, social security and Medicare, and other structures that recognize basic human necessities and asks whether housing might be one of these. Against the economic arguments of what this might cost, he asks what it is costing us when so many below the poverty line live with housing uncertainty, and the impact this is having in many of our cities.

This was not an easy book to write. Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, lived for a couple years in the neighborhoods of these eight individuals or families and won the trust of these people who let him into their lives and let him record their stories as they unfolded. He lived in Tobin Charney’s trailer park, and for a time on the north side of Milwaukee. He describes this experience as “heartbreaking” and that it “left me depressed for years.” It changed him. He writes,

“The guilt I felt during my fieldwork only intensified after I left. I felt like a phony and a traitor, ready to confess to some unnamed accusation. I couldn’t help but translate a bottle of wine placed in front of me at a university function or my monthly daycare bill into rent payments or bail money back in Milwaukee. It leaves an impression, this kind of work. Now imagine it’s your life” (p. 328).

For Desmond, it has propelled, in addition to writing this book, further research in the form of the Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS), the first of its kind to study tenants in poverty neighborhoods renting on the private market, and developing tools for further research of this aspect of urban sociology that has been often overlooked.

This strikes me as academic field research at its best, and there is something more in Desmond’s immersion in these communities. There is an incarnational quality to his approach to these communities–that won the trust of those he interviewed but also changed him, and perhaps through his narrative might begin to change us as well.

Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for this work.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Month in Reviews: June 2015

Hands down, I think I read some of the best books I’ve read in 2015 during June. From a Pulitzer Prize winner that lived up to its reputation to a David McCullough biography of two heroes from my own state to a classic of environmental writing to a significant book on spiritual friendship, I read some great books! In addition, I just finished a book on leisure and spirituality and an older book on the academic vocation that is still quite relevant in upholding the worth of teaching. So with that preview, here’s the list (all links are to the full reviews on this blog):

Preaching with AccuracyLet Creation Rejoice1. Preaching with AccuracyRandal E. Pelton. This book contends that to preach with accuracy, one needs to find the big idea in the text, but not only that, to understand that idea in the context of the book, and ultimately all of scripture, which means connecting it to the person and work of Christ.

2. Let Creation RejoiceJonathan Moo and Robert S. White. A scientist and a theologian get together to assess both environmental trends and biblical teaching and contend that there are reasons for serious concern, concerted action, and because of the gospel, for hope.

Spiritual FriendshipAll the Light We Cannot See3. All the Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr. Two teenagers, a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a German orphan, Werner Pfennig, with a gift for radio electronics, are brought together at the end of World War 2 through underground radio broadcasts by her great-uncle of recordings by her grandfather while a dying German Sergeant Major seeks a treasure in the girl’s possession. This won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

4. Spiritual FriendshipWesley Hill. This is an exploration of the place of friendship in the life of the Christian, particularly its importance for those who chose, either because of sexual orientation, or other reasons to live celibate, chaste lives.

Silent SpringGrassroots5. Silent SpringRachel Carson. This classic of environmental writing made the case that pesticides were rendering harm to just about everything in the American landscape, including human beings, except for the pests targeted by these chemical poisons.

6. Grassroots Asian Theology, Simon Chan. In contrast to the growing list of “contextual” Asian theologies out of academic “elitist” settings, Chan explores the Asian theologies implicit in the popular church movements and writers in the Asian context, and particularly the significance of Pentecostal theology.

Words of LifeThe Wright Brothers7. The Wright Brothers, David McCullough. The author traces the Wright brothers successful efforts to develop the first powered aircraft to successfully, fly from their home town bicycle shop in Dayton, to their trials at Kitty Hawk, to their global success. The book also highlights the importance of their sister Katherine throughout their efforts.

8. Words of LifeTimothy Ward. A Reformed treatment of the doctrine of scripture that begins from a study of scripture’s teaching about itself, moves to a Trinitarian theology of scripture and finally explores the classical affirmations about scripture. Another significant aspect of this book is its incorporation of “speech-act” theory which Ward uses to delineate the relationship of God and the Bible.

ExilesPrivate Doubt, Public Dilemma9. Exiles From Eden, Mark R. Schwehn. Chronicles a shift in the academic vocation from one of formation of the mind and character of students to one of making knowledge, reflecting a change from religiously shaped values to a valuing of formal and procedural rationality, and from an integral sense of self to a multiplicity of “selves.”

10. Private Doubt, Public DilemmaKeith Thomson. This book, drawn from Thomson’s 2012 Terry Lectures, explores the conflict between religion and science through a look at two men who struggled with this conflict, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Darwin, considering how they handled scientific findings that conflicted with their beliefs and the public aftermath and expresses hope for a different engagement in the future.

Leisure and Spirituality11. Leisure and SpiritualityPaul Heintzman. An exploration of the connection between leisure and spirituality from a Christian perspective, considering contemporary and classical concepts of leisure, the perspective on leisure we may gain from the Bible, and the author’s own synthesis and critique of leisure concepts, biblical material and contemporary research.

Best of the Month: I had several choices but will say Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Can See. In my review I wrote, “Doerr is a master painter with words, with all the strokes falling just as they should.”

Quote of the Month:  The Buckeye in me can’t resist this one from The Wright Brothers by David McCullough:

“If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” –Wilbur Wright

Right now, I am reading an Agatha Christie mystery, some historical fiction by Sharon Kay Penman, a book on C.S. Lewis’s writing on the spiritual life, and one on walking the labyrinth. A reading group I’m in is going through a collection of Spurgeon sermons that I will finish in late July-early August. Also look for a review of Rachel Held Evans Searching for Sunday in July.

Summer is a time to relax and replenish the well. Books are just one of the things that help with that, but what fun it can be to lose oneself in a good one! I’ve been fortunate to find several.

All “The Month in Reviews” posts may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” link on the menu bar of my blog. And if you don’t want to wait a month to see my reviews, consider following the blog for reviews as well as thoughts on reading, the world of books, and life.

Review: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. New York: Scribners, 2014.

Summary: Two teenagers, a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a German orphan, Werner Pfennig, with a gift for radio electronics, are brought together at the end of World War 2 through underground radio broadcasts by her great-uncle of recordings by her grandfather while a dying German Sergeant Major seeks a treasure in the girl’s possession.

I don’t think I’ve been gripped by the “voice” of a writer as I was from the first pages of this book since reading Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. It is a voice that quietly and deliberately creates an atmosphere that evokes the mixture of wonder of two children coming of age and discovering the world and their own loves, the pall of sadness and terror surrounding the German invasion of France, and  mounting tension, as a sinister and dying Sergeant Major confiscating treasures for the Fuhrer closes in on Marie-Laure, all alone in one of the few standing houses in St. Malo, days before it fell to the allies in August 1944.

The book opens with the opening of the invasion. Marie-Laure is blind and alone in the house at 4 Rue Vauborel, her great-uncle Etienne having been interned and her father lost or dead in a German prison camp. Werner is five blocks away attempting to find the source of underground broadcasts, which are being made by Marie-Laure’s uncle, shelters and is trapped in the basement of a collapsed hotel.

The story shifts back and forth between the invasion of St. Malo, and a telling of the story of the childhood of these two and the events that brought them together in St. Malo in August of 1944. We learn of a blind girl whose father is a locksmith for the Natural History Museum of Paris and how she learns to find her way around the city from a scale model her father makes. We see her growing love for the creatures of the sea as she reads a Braille version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. We learn of an orphan boy, Werner, who finds and old radio and makes it work, revealing a growing gift for radio electronics. He and his sister tune into wondrous broadcasts (that we learn were made by great-uncle Etienne and Marie-Laure’s grandfather). This is an example of the luminescence of Doerr’s writing:

The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?

Werner’s talents come to the attention of the Reich and he is sent to a school that exists to develop the Aryan super race. He learns triangulation which leads to eventual deployment hunting down underground transmitters. Meanwhile, he witnesses the brutal destruction of his one friend Frederick, who loved birds more than war. During this time Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris, the father being entrusted with a precious diamond, the Sea of Flames, and end up with her great uncle Etienne in St. Malo on the coast of Brittany. The remainder of the story traces how the lives of Werner and Marie-Laure come together in St. Malo while tension builds as the sinister and dying Sergeant Major von Rumpel closes in and then occupies the house where Marie-Laure is staying while she hides in the attic accessed by a secret door in the back of a wardrobe.

Doerr gives us a story of beauty, pathos and mounting tension. He explores through the sightless Marie-Laure and the orphan Werner the incredible wonder of discovery, whether of the world of snails and sea creatures, or the fascinations of electronic circuitry and the wonders of science. Doerr portrays the beauty of the love between daughter and father, between brother and sister, and the growing friendship between Werner and Frederick. We see that the most terrible thing about war is the brutality that is oblivious of such beauty and which seeks to obliterate the better angels of our nature. [In this context, it should be noted that there are descriptions of violence and one scene of sexual assault, none of which is gratuitous.]

Doerr’s work won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction and I would contend that it was utterly deserving of such recognition. Doerr is a master painter with words, with all the strokes falling just as they should. I’m glad for the light it shed in my life.

The Pulitzers as a Window on our World

"Gen pulitzer" by Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Gen pulitzer” by Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced. This prize is awarded in twenty-one categories of writing from fiction to explanatory journalism with a $10,000 prize award in each of twenty categories and a gold medal in the public service category. The award was established in 1917 in the will of publisher Joseph Pulitzer and is administered by Columbia University in New York City (information source: Wikipedia).

Reading down the list of Pulitzer awards for this year suggests to me that many of these represent not only examples of great writing but the convergence of great writing with the concerns of our time. Nowhere is that more evident than in the public service gold medal award which went to the relatively small Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina for its series on domestic violence titled “Till Death Do Us Part“. The investigation that led to this series began when reporters for the newspaper noted that South Carolina was number one in the nation for the rate of women dying from incidents of domestic violence. The series is simply a window into the much wider prevalence of domestic violence, chronicled by the statistics in this Huffington Post article.

Other journalism awards illustrate this same idea. The New York Times won the international reporting category for its series of stories on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. I admit it, I accessed these stories along with many others last summer to understand the horror of this outbreak and the belated response of health organizations around the world to it. The Los Angeles Times reporter Diana Marcum won a feature writing prize for the impact of the drought on California’s Central Valley and writer Mary McNamara won a criticism prize for writing on television and culture. The St Louis Post-Dispatch won breaking news photography awards for its coverage of the Ferguson riots following the death of Michael Brown.

all-the-light-we-cannot-see-9781476746586_lgI think this was true of the book awards as well. I believe there is a growing sensitivity of the impact of war on children. Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot Seewon the prize for fiction for his compelling account of two children whose lives are brought together by the devastation of World War II (this is one of my “want to read” books). Doerr’s book was also a National Book Award finalist.

Likewise, the non-fiction prize, The Sixth Extinction argues that there have been five previous catastrophic extinctions that have led to mass extinctions. Elizabeth Kolbert argues that we are in the midst of the sixth such extinction, and the first attributable to the human impact on life on the planet.

The prize for biography went to David Kertzer, whose The Pope and Mussolini explored the complex relationship between the Vatican and “Il Duce”. One cannot help wonder if the fascination with Pope Francis, whose engagements both with political powers in South America and the curia in Rome have caught our attention.

A complete list of prize winners appears on the Pulitzer website. In some way each of the award winners explore the intersection of our highest human aspirations and the rawest realities of the human condition. Whether in heroic resistance to tyranny, courageous medical care in a dangerous epidemic, the capturing in images of the explosive anger over the disparity between our country’s democratic ideals and institutional racism, or the consequences of our technological footprint on the fabric of life, each explores the paradox of our magnificent and flawed nature. Nowhere is this more the case than in the expose of the violence that invades the intimacy of the closest of all human relationships. The window on the world these writers and reporters give us reminds us of the line of good and evil that runs through our lives, the choice between destructive forces and the “better angels of our nature” we face each day, and dare I say, our common need of redemption. Good writing has always done this and I’m glad for the Pulitzer Awards and other prizes that call attention to those who give us both windows on our world and windows into our souls.