Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Deep river


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A river runs through Evidence, the new collection of poems by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press). Only in one poem is it a particular river, but on my first pass (of many) through these 47 poems, I was struck at how often Oliver invoked a river, almost always noting its "song." Transition – the way rivers flow, their acquiescence to gravity – seems to be on her mind these days.

"Sometimes the river murmurs, sometimes it raves," Oliver writes at the end of "At the River Clarion." Not content to be an observer of the river from shore, Oliver writes, "I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a water splashed stone. All afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking." What will come as no surprise to her regular readers is that the river's many voices – the water, the rocks, the mosses – all sang, "I am part of holiness."

The lesbian poet has spent much of her 60 years on Earth listening to it, in the process becoming a "nature" poet in the league of Wordsworth, whose poetry is said to have inspired this volume. There is still almost audible excitement in her literary voice, but her nature mysticism seems to have reached a stage more of stillness – a quiet that is not so much a quality as a presence that informs most of her images.

Even in the ones in which she depicts the seeming violence of nature, its death-in-life quality, there's a hush and often a silence. "Prince Buzzard," one of the most arresting poems in the group, depicts the raptor come to "the dark work" of devouring the body of a dead lamb. Oliver sees the bird "settling with hunched wings/ and silent/ as the grass itself/ over the lamb's white body–/ it seemed a ceremony." Because the buzzard does its work "thoroughly," the poet notes that, the following summer, "the field was nothing but flowers, flowers, flowers."

In Evidence, the images that burned themselves onto my memory most were of flowers and their silent ways. In "First Days in San Miguel de Allende," one of the collection's longer poems, Oliver twice writes about the jacarandas in the garden of the house she rented on her first trip to Mexico. When the flowers make their second appearance in the poem, the deep movements of nature are captured in a characteristic Oliver perception: "The silks of the jacaranda, as though/ it is the most important work in the world,/ keep falling."

Over the decades, Oliver's readers have been allowed to glimpse the poet's own life. In recent volumes, the seminal "events" have been the death of her long-term partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, and her subsequent (but not necessarily consequent) movement into the realm of institutional religion. Both, I suspect, have caused large portions of her audience various kinds of grief.

There's nothing so jarring in Evidence, a subtle collection that sometimes teaches but never preaches. All the usual Oliver themes – the divine in the physical world, the importance of having loved, the power and consolation of words – are present. And a sense of what the poet herself calls "mischief" is back in the verse in a life-giving way. "The witchery of living/ is my whole conversation/ with you, my darlings," she writes, in what feels like direct address to her readers, in "To Begin With, the Sweet Grass."

But the sense of a woman more acutely aware than ever of her own mortality is there, too, in every line. Sometimes she uses that perspective to challenge, as in the poem called "Evidence": "I ask you again: if you have not been enchanted by/ this adventure – your life – what would do for/ you?" Occasionally she uses it to pass on lessons learned, such as the one at the end of "To Begin With, the Sweet Grass": "Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world." But mostly she uses it to rally her readers, Whitman-like, to take their places in the world in and around them. In "The Singular and Cheerful Life," she extols "the holiest of laws:/ be alive/ until you are not."

There's a perceptible paring down of words in Evidence, perhaps the beginning of Oliver's striking a deal between song and silence. Certainly her poems lose no eloquence as they shed syllables. One of the shortest, "Snowy Egret," is all the more startling for its brevity. In it, she describes the bird, which has paid nocturnal visits in front of her house for four decades, as "that white stroke in the dark." It made me wonder when, for Oliver, a poem will become a dark stroke in the white.

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