Tag Archives: Mary Oliver

Best Poetry Books of 2012: a Baker’s Dozen

Turns out, 2012 was a fine year for poetry.  The following is a selection of 13 (my lucky number) books that deserve consideration if you find yourself hankering after something a tad more lyrical than prose and a bit less weighty than Kierkegaard. Consider any of the following: they won’t do you wrong.


Collected Poems by Jack Gilbert – Gilbert, who was born in Pittsburgh, PA, attended Peabody High School and worked, among other jobs, as a steelworker, died in 2012 after battling Alzheimer’s. He was one of the finest American poets of the last 50 years and this volume contains all his published collections, in addition to some previously unpublished poems. There is a lyrical ennui to his work unsurpassed in recent years.


Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds – Sharon Olds is another prominent poet with a Pittsburgh connection (her early volume, Satan Says, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press). Stag’s Leap is getting lots of positive buzz, hence the occasional wait for her books. Olds digs deeply into the events of everyday, and what she comes back with is always unflinchingly honest and emotionally fired.


The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton Lucille Clifton, who passed away in 2010, finally gets her due with this voluminous collection of her life’s work.  A leading poet of her generation, her poetry addresses issues such as her African American heritage and women’s rights. She was a master of concision, straightforward, and direct, as few modern poets are.


New Collected Poems by Wendell BerryLike Lucille Clifton, the work of Wendell Berry serves as a moral compass for the American experience, if from a different perspective. This is yet another outstanding career-spanning collection (I told you it was a good year). My partner reads everything by the man: essays, poetrynon-fictionlectures, and luminescent fiction.


Thrall: Poems by Natasha TretheweyA brand new volume by the brand new Poet Laureate of the United States, Natasha Trethewey, Thrall is an exploration the poet’s mixed heritage as seen in the greater arc of all of American history. This volume is a must for all those interested in modern American poetry and the all-important subject of race in America.


A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver – There are many things that have been said about Mary Oliver, some of them not so pleasant, particularly within the ‘poetry community.’ In the real world, however, the work of Mary Oliver might best be described in one word: transcendent. Her new collection, A Thousand Mornings, is her best in years, and that is saying something. Do yourself a favor – don’t know where to start with poetry but want to give it a go? Start here.


Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins – Here’s a title I bet you didn’t expect to see on this list: Alien vs. Predator, by poet Michael Robbins.  Jordan Davis, in his Nation review, gives you a good idea what to expect: “These poems are bad for you, the way alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, bacon, carbohydrates, television and the internet are bad for you.” And, of course, by bad, like any incisive critic, he means good.


Slow Lightning by Eduardo Corral – A new selection in the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets, Slow Lightning by Eduardo Corral is a winner in more ways than one.  Selected by Carl Phillips for the series, he observes that “Corral’s point is that language, like sex, is fluid and dangerous and thrilling, now a cage, now a window out. In Corral’s refusal to think in reductive terms lies his great authority. His refusal to entirely trust authority wins my trust as a reader.”


Place by Jorie Graham – A new volume of work, in this case entitled Place, by Jorie Graham is always a welcome event.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and oft cited as one of the most celebrated post-war American poets, she has been compared to both Rilke and Yeats in her philosophical and political scope by James Longenbach. Find out why in the pages of this acclaimed new collection.


Poems: 1962-2012 by Louise Glück – Many of my favorite poets appear on this list, not the least of whom is Louise Glück. To describe her work as strange and wonderful and accomplished just doesn’t begin to glean the depths spanned in this comprehensive 50 year collection. Though I prefer her early work, the appeal of a collection of this type, as with the volumes by Gilbert and Clifton above, is that you can dip leisurely and at random throughout, picking and choosing and heading off in myriad directions, sparking connections that perhaps might astonish even the poet.

Engine-EmpireEngine Empire by Cathy Park Hong – Cathy Park Hong has been about the business of poetry for 10 plus years, her innovative novel told in poems, Dance Dance Revolution, in 2007 bringing her work to wider attention. Slate Magazine called Engine Empire “a remarkable book of poetry about the speed at which we’re rushing toward the future.” Rumpus.net observed that “underlying the narrative is strong poetic style and an eagle eye for searingly memorable imagery.” That’s what others think. To find out what Park Hong thinks, read this Paris Review interview with her specifically about Engine Empire

bestBest American Poetry 2012, edited by Mark Doty – Maybe this is just all too much – so many poets, which do I choose? Well, there is another solution – the annual publication of the series entitled Best American Poetry, the 2012 edition. Each volume over the years has a general series editor (David Lehman currently) and a different specific editor for each year. What this means is the general editor assembles a boatload of work considered the best of the year and the annual editor then whittles it down to a standard book size selection. Each editor has their quirks – if you don’t like one year, another may do the trick. You’ll find a list of all the guest editors, from 1986 through 2012, here.

li poBright Moon, White Clouds: Selected Poems of Li Po, edited by J. P. Seaton – Last comes a favorite of mine – a new translation of the poems of Li Po, composed fourteen centuries ago. Li Po (aka Li Bai), along with his friend Tu Fu (aka Du Fu), are among the most renowned and celebrated poets from China’s classical golden era. This new selection, edited and translated by J. P. Seaton, continues a long line of distinguished English language renderings of the lyrical wonder of Li Po. The apocryphal story of Li Po’s death – how, drunk, while out boating, he drowned attempting to embrace the reflection of the moon – actually captures something of the romance and flavor of his poems. In closing, here’s a very brief poem from Bright Moon, White Clouds:

Jade Stairs Lament

Jade steps grow dew.
Night, late, has its way with her silken hose.
So let the crystal curtain fall . . .
In its jingling glitter, gaze on many Autumn moons.

– Don


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Swan by Mary Oliver

Beacon Press, Boston, 2010

When, if ever, should a poet retire?

I have to admit this was the question that crossed my mind when, opening to the first page of Swan: Poems and Prose Poems, the new Mary Oliver poetry collection, I read the title of the first poem, which is also the first line:

What can I say that I have not said before

I thought, oh, no, she’s succumbed to the very criticism that has been leveled at her by many a critical nemesis.  And the second line:

So I’ll say it again.

Time to take a deep breath and pause – this is how you begin a new book?

Well, I love the work of Mary Oliver.  I’ve reviewed two recent collections, Evidence and Red Bird, as well as the audio book On Blackwater Pond, right here on Eleventh Stack, as well as leading discussions on her work.   Mary Oliver has a sense of humor – to begin a book with a poem entitled “What Can I Say That I Have Not Said Before” most certainly can be ironic.  The poem, overall, however, wasn’t anything special and so my anxiety was hardly relieved.

Still, this is the Mary Oliver we’re talking about.

So, onward.  All the way to page 16 and nothing.  I’m beginning to sweat.  And then it clicked.

It clicked, the specific it being “Beans Green and Yellow”:

Beans Green and Yellow

In fall
it is mushrooms
gathered from dampness
under the pines;
in spring
I have known
the taste of lamb
full of milk
and spring grass;
it is beans green and yellow
and lettuce and basil
from my friend’s garden-
how calmly,
as though it were an ordinary thing,
we eat the blessed earth.


The how of this poem reminds me very much of one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets: James Wright.  The poem is “A Blessing.”   Each of these poems has a set scenario that is commented on in a final three-line coda that is most haiku-like.    Both poems wrench us out of ourselves; “Beans Yellow and Green” figuratively and “A Blessing” literally, at least for the speaker, and figuratively.   The Oliver poem turns, ever so calmly mimicking its own declaration, on the simple line “as though it were an ordinary thing.”

Here is what Oliver does best.  She reminds us where we are and, in so doing, collectively who we are, and how very amazing that is, indeed.  Shades of “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life.”

If this be repetition, play on.

Ten pages on there is a devastating prose poem entitled “In Provincetown, and Ohio, and Alabama.”   What might these diverse locales all have in common?  Drink deep and long of a cold mountain spring and you’ll think of it eventually.  It begins

“Death taps his black wand and something vanished.”

Ah, yes, there’s some common ground. There it begins and it ends with one of the most horrific, “holy” images in all of Oliver’s considerable body of work. To call it stunning and pure and frightening doesn’t seem quite to capture the extent of its power.   This one is for the ages: all of them.

Two other poems capture the haiku-like quality of the closing lines of “Beans Green and Yellow.”    “April” is a beautiful meditation on a beautiful early spring evening, the poet stopping herself in mid-poem to let the “something” from “somewhere other” complete the poem for us.  It is simple, succinct, and wise.

The other is “How Heron Comes” and here it is:

How Heron Comes

It is a negligence of the mind
not to notice how at dusk
heron comes to the pond and
stands there in his death robes, perfect
servant of the system, hungry, his eyes
full of attention, his
wings pure light.


There is plenty here we could try to suss out: the heron’s “death robes,” what is “the system,” and how exactly are wings made of “pure light”? Do the details really matter, individually? Sure, in a sense, but they matter more, far more, collectively, for their tone, their ambiance, is their meaning. There is a lesson being taught here and it’s not primarily by the poet. The poet, in the spirit of Zen direct pointing, is calling our attention to the lesson, which is the lesson itself.

In Zen, direct pointing is illustrated in the aphorism of the finger pointing out the moon; once we’ve seen it, we no longer need the finger. You might say “How Heron Comes” is an example of that finger.

The universality of the message here is underscored by one simple word, one article, that is not in the poem: “the.” For the title is not How The Heron Comes, it is How Heron Comes, and line 3  is not “the heron comes to the pond,” it is “heron comes to the pond.”

It is what is not in the poem, it is what is not here, that tells us everything we need to know.

And this is what Mary Oliver does best; she calls our attention to what we don’t see, what we ignore, either willfully or by default. Heron shows it is “full attention” that is needed, no “negligence of the mind” will do.

I walked away from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems with 9 poems that grabbed me.  Thinking on that, I recalled Nicolson Baker’s idea in his recent novel, The Anthologist: a poet writes 2, maybe 3 great poems in their lifetime.  So, here I was with 9 poems that have given me both pause and a reason to return to this volume again and again.  Next I thought of all those other fine poems in all those other excellent books Ms. Oliver has written and found myself quite satisfied.   I bet you, too,  would find yourself quite happy with Swan: Poems and Prose Poems, though I’d venture to say, perhaps, that the poems you walk away with might not necessarily be the same ones that I did.

So, when should a poet retire?   Well, when someone starts paying poets to write poems, when someone puts a roof over their heads, when someone picks up the tab for health insurance, when someone believes that maybe we might get 2 or 3 great poems out of a poet and it’s worth the investment.  Maybe then poets can start thinking about retiring.

Then again, maybe not.

– Don


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Wendell Berry: The Peace of Wild Things


Photo by David Marshall http://www.davidaaronmarshall.com uploaded to Wikipedia with his permission, under Creative Commons "Share alike" 2.0 license.

When I think of Wendell Berry, I think of the Dalai Lama, Henry David Thoreau, and Gary Snyder, all extraordinary human beings whose lives I admire and ideas I cherish, particularly when it comes to our collective place in the larger ecosytem that is our world. “Hero” seems too ordinary a word, “saint,” perhaps too hyperbolic to describe who they are. To borrow from another culture, somehow, “bodhisattva” seems just right, because these individuals share an all-embracing compassion for the sentient life forms with which we share this little spinning ball we call home.   That lesson is one which they wish to share with others to raise awareness of who and where we are, while making this a better place and enhancing the potential quality of all life .

Personally, I came to Wendell Berry not through his luminous environmental works, or his fiction (Remembering is one of the best, most moving short novels I’ve ever read), both of which I’ve enjoyed, nor his advocacy for sustainable agriculture, but  through his poetry.  His volume of poems Farming: a Handbook (which is contained in his Collected Poems) has always been a personal favorite of mine.  In addition, certain individual poems by Berry I’ve run across over the years have spoken to me deeply.   What is most unusual about this for me is that, generally, I’m not much for the narrative approach he takes in a great deal of his work. But somehow he manages to take all the elements most important to him, merge them into a style I’m decidedly indifferent to, and win me over in a big way.

Which brings us to “The Peace of Wild Things,” one of his more well-known poems.

The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The first thing I’m struck by is the thought that Mary Oliver probably loves this poem and William Logan probably does not.  The second thing that occurred to me after reading this poem is what an archetypal experience it describes.

What “happens” in the poem is something we all experience, a part of being human: the fear and doubt about our condition, who we are, and what we do.  Many of us, rural and city dwellers alike, get up in the middle of the night and read or worry or drink tea or walk.  Robert Frost, in an uncharacteristic city setting, addresses the very same existential situation in his poem “Acquainted With the Night.” 

Acquainted With The Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain –and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Both poems find their narrators heading out into the night seeking something: solace, resolution, peace of mind.    Though Frost’s poem seems darker and is decidedly more impersonal, both characters head into nature, the rural dweller to a secluded spot, the city dweller out beyond the city limits, beyond the furthest city lights.  Note that the “luminary clock” that Frost’s narrator sees is at an unearthly height, suggesting in fact that he, too, is coming closer to nature as he gazes upon that natural luminary clock, the moon.

Berry’s protagonist does find that solace, that peace of mind that s/he seeks, amongst “wild things” in the natural setting from which we come and to which we will return.  There is an essential grounding in nature for human beings and this is the core message of all of Wendell Berry’s work, be it lyric, prosaic, or in the actual tending of the land itself.  The character in “The Peace of Wild Things” is out of balance and instinctually heads out into nature to right her/his compass.  Berry is telling us that it is this balance that must be put to rights, the balance between nature and man, in all that we do and how we go about doing it. 

As with Mary Oliver’s most famous poem, “Wild Geese,” there is no attempt to portray nature as benign or Disneyesque; it is not that kind of peace they are speaking of.  It is understanding our position in this world in an almost pre-cognitive way, understanding that nature simply is: it is not good or bad, and it should never be taken for granted.

The peace of wild things is existence in the moment, a peace wherein fear and forethought and demonstrative grief are unknown.  Berry points to the beauty of the water but balances that calming image with the great heron feeding, the natural way of things.  Oliver’s wild geese, too, are not of the Thomas Kinkade variety.   They call out

—————————————harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

With such agreement as this amongst Berry, Oliver, and Frost, three of the greatest American nature poets of the 20th century, the message should be seen as an important, essential one.

To live in the world we must be of the world, not set apart from the natural order, but an important part of that order, with all the moral rights and obligations that an extraordinary situation such as ours makes manifest.

– Don

PS  If poetry isn’t your thing, there is an essay entitled “A Native Hill” by Berry in his collection The Long-Legged House that describes a scenario remarkably similar to “The Peace of Wild Things.”


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Three Poets, One Moon, and the Ancient Rites of Spring



In a recent post about Mary Oliver’s new book, Evidence, I quoted her poem, “Li Po and the Moon.” In one way, it was an unusual subject for her; in another, it was just a different approach to one of her dominant themes, nature.

So, imagine my surprise when I picked up the much anticipated (at least by me) new volume of poems by Jack Gilbert, entitled The Dance Most of All, to discover the following:


Winter In The Night Fields
I was getting water tonight
off guard when I saw the moon
in my bucket and was tempted
by those Chinese poets
and their immaculate pain.

Two poems in the same year in new books by two of my favorite poets, both alluding to the famed Chinese poet, Li Po (Li Bai).   I mentioned the famous story of Li Po’s death in the Oliver posting; as it’s told, in a drunken reverie, Li Po tried to grasp the moon’s reflection in the water, fell in and drowned. 

I wasn’t sure what to make of this mutual admiration for the same esteemed Chinese poet: coincidence, synchronicity, collusion?  No matter.  It was enough for me to seek out Li Po and dip my big toe in the reflection that is his body of work.

Perhaps I’d even stir it up a bit to see if that moon, temporarily gone, might just reappear again.

li po selectIn The Selected Poems of Li Po, translated by David Hinton, Hinton confirms that “Li Po died as the legend says he died: out drunk in a boat, he fell into a river and drowned trying to embrace the moon.”  Here’s a poem by Li Po himself, which at once captures his spirit and seems to foresee his own demise:


Drinking In Moonlight

I sit with my wine jar
among flowers
blossoming trees

no one to drink with

well, there’s the moon

I raise my cup
and ask him to join me
bringing my shadow
making us three

but the moon doesn’t seem to be drinking
and my shadow just creeps around behind me.

still, we’re companions tonight
me, the moon, and the shadow
we’re observing
the rites of spring

I sing
and the moon rocks back and forth

I dance
and my shadow
weaves and tumbles with me

we celebrate for awhile
then go our own ways, drunk

may we meet again someday
in the white river of stars
Li Po
translated by David Young


Li Po was a member of a group of Chinese scholars known as “The Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup,” famous for, among other things, their prodigious admiration of alcohol.  Along with his friend and fellow poet, Tu Fu (Du Fu), Li Po is one of the most revered Chinese poets in history.  Over 1000  poems have been attributed to Li Po, suffused as they are with a love of nature, a Taoist philosophy,  and a romantic ennui that not only reminds the modern reader of Wordworth, Coleridge, and other Romantics, but resonates emphatically for poets as seemingly disparate as Mary Oliver and Jack Gilbert.  

Here are some collections of his work, coupled as they often are with the work of his friend, Tu Fu, and their fellow Tang era poets:


Bright Moon, Perching Bird: Poems by Li Po and Tu Fu
Li Po and Tu Fu, selected and translated by Arthur Cooper
Facing the Moon: Poems of Li Bai and Du Fu
The Selected Poems of Li Po, translated by David Hinton
Three Chinese Poets: Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu
I Hear My Gate Slam : Chinese Poets Meeting and Parting
Five Tang  Poets, translated by David Young          


Now that spring has grudgingly arrived in our frequently overcast hometown,  some clear evening why not experience a little moon viewing of your own, following the ancient Chinese and Japanese traditions?  But if you’re moved to try to take the moon in your arms, reach for the one in the sky and not the one reflected in any of our majestic bodies of water.

And, oh, careful with that wine, my lyrical friend!

– Don


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Mary Oliver: Evidence

oliver4Once again, Mary Oliver fans may take heart: a new volume of her poetry, Evidence, has just been published and it is, as always, quite good.

Though not to everyone’s taste, Oliver has however managed to become one of the two most popular American poets of the last 20 years, among both the generally non-poetry reading and poetry reading public alike. In this, she is only surpassed by the ubiquitous Billy Collins.

As such, both poets have become easy targets among both mainstream and independent-minded poetry aficionados, as if popularity alone consigned a poet’s work to the realm of Hallmark “immortality.”

A continual criticism of both poets is that they are repetitive; they seem to be constantly rewriting the same poem over and over again. In fact, the exact same criticism might be leveled at every major poet, writer, musician, or artist, from Robinson Jeffers, to Kurt Vonnegut, to Vivaldi, to Gauguin.

Within a given style or subject, variety can be nearly infinite. Think of the short 3-line Japanese form, the haiku. Think of 12 bar blues. Think of Edward Hopper’s use of light, in both urban and rural settings.


Mary Oliver is constantly exploring our place in nature, our place in the universe. This is, in fact, one of the big themes in all of literature. Oliver typically, in her own unique way, approaches this idea by direct encounter with nature itself. She ventures out, much like Frost or Thoreau or Wordsworth before her, sees something unique, something telling, and she works hard through her verse to wrap her mind around it.

As a result we, her readers, wrap our minds around it, too.

So, she might find a piece of whale bone ear on a beach, or come upon a three legged buck, or a lovely flower, or a flock of departing geese. This is the stuff she transmutes into poetry, at once elegaic, ecological, and philosophical in nature. It is what you might expect from Oliver and it is largely what you get. It is in the execution that Oliver makes the connection to her readers.

Here are two poems from Evidence that are not typical Oliver, at least on the surface. The subject of the first is, ostensibly, the ancient Chinese poet, Li Po, and the subject of the second, again apparently, is the composer, Franz Schubert.

    Li Po and the Moon

There is the story of the old Chinese poet:
at night in his boat he went drinking and dreaming
and singing

then drowned as he reached for the moon’s reflection.
Well, probably each of us, at some time, has been
as desperate.

Not the moon, though.


He takes such small steps
to express our longings.
Thank you, Schubert.

How many hours
do I sit here
aching to do

what I do not do
when, suddenly,
he throws a single note

higher than the others
so that I feel
the green field of hope,

and then, descending,
all this world’s sorrow,
so deadly, so beautiful.

Quite simple poems, yet they cut right to the heart of the matter in a very different way than might normally be found in Oliver’s work. Not different in essence or theme, necessarily, but different in execution and approach.

The first retells the famous story of Li Po’s death when, in a drunken reverie, he tried to grasp the moon’s reflection in the water, fell in and drowned. The success of this poem rests in the delicate balance between the irony of the zen-like aphorism Oliver elicits from the scene and a very harsh underscoring of who we are and what the moon is. The moon, indeed, has never been desperate; inanimate objects rarely are. Alas, weak as we are, all people have been inflicted with desperation at one time or another. Nature doesn’t care. Nature doesn’t exact vengenance; nature just is.

Turns out this Eastern-style maxim is in actuality another type of nature encounter, so familiar to Oliver readers, yet found here in the most unlikely of places.

With “Schubert,” we visit the land of the desperate once again, this time with the listener of a beautiful, transcendent classical piece. What the listener is reminded upon the hitting of that highest of notes, and the resultant tumble downwards, is the pure sorrow in the world, evoked perfectly by the master composer, who strikes deep in our despairing little hearts with the notion that life, that nature, that the world, is “so deadly, so beautiful.”

The poem turns deftly on its last four words, a beautiful, deadly pirouette that we might not have anticipated but that surely, knowing Mary Oliver, we should have. One only has to look to her most famous poem, “Wild Geese,” and for “deadly” and “beautiful” substitute that poem’s descriptors “harsh” and “exciting,” to realize this message isn’t so very different at all.

Yet the two poems, “Wild Geese” and “Schubert,” could hardly be less similar. In fact, in all of these poems, Oliver addresses nature and our place in it, and out of it, from three distinctly different perspectives.

If this is repetition, bring it on. I’m ready for more Mary Oliver, anytime.

– Don


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Poetry: New and Recommended, Part II


 Here are eleven (our favorite number again) more new and noteworthy poetry titles (plus one audio, for an even dozen) featured in our International Poetry and Literature collections. This is a companion list to last year’s recommended poetry post.



In addition, in anticipation of the upcoming Billy Collins poetry reading in Pittsburgh at the Drue Heinz Lecture Series, the Main Library’s poetry discussion group, 3 Poems By, will be taking a look at the work of the former Poet Laureate on Tuesday, February 12th. The discussion is open to all; details may be found at the 3 Poems By website. Mr. Collins has also just released a much-praised new collection, Ballistics, which you can snap up for the right price (free) at the library anytime.

In preparation for that meeting, I’ve been talking to folks about Collins and reading lots of his poems. A colleague of mine recommended some of his favorite Billy Collins poems to me. Here’s one, short and sweet, with Collins’s signature humor, laced with a mitigating thread of melancholy:


No Time

In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
where my parents are buried
side by side beneath a slab of smooth granite.

Then, all day, I think of him rising up
to give me that look
of knowing disapproval
while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

Billy Collins


Yes, indeed.



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At Blackwater Pond: Mary Oliver Reads Mary Oliver


It is no small irony that, for exactly the reason that Mary Oliver is loved by legions of fans, she is also reviled by many critics: a simple, clear spoken language and a set of themes, predominately nature-based, that she returns to again and again.

Next month, the 3 Poems By Discussion Group will be considering Mary Oliver. In preparation, I have been steeping myself in her work in recent weeks, reading volume after volume in an attempt to come up with a solid overall picture of Oliver the poet. The results of this crash course have been illuminating. But first, a slight digression.

I’ve spent the better part of last year engaged in an online discussion of what exactly a good or great book of poetry is. The discussion has centered around a postulation that the average poetry book generally has two to three very good poems, with an above average book having anywhere from 4 to 6 or beyond. The discussion morphed into a proposed list of “near perfect books of poetry,” which has been very interesting, indeed. Overall, the list consists of the classic poets you would expect (Whitman, Plath, Dickinson, Frost), classic titles, and compilations of selected or collected poems. Oliver herself has two titles on the list: American Primitive and Dream Work. I believe House of Light will be finding its way on to the list very soon.

In addition to her formidable body of work, there are two volumes of selected poems by Oliver. Yet neither the titles noted above nor the two selected volumes represents the very best of her work. The very best is an audiobook compilation entitled At Blackwater Pond: Mary Oliver Reads Mary Oliver.

The audio compilation of Oliver reading her own work contains some 40 poems, a full 24 that I noted as being at the very least very good and in some cases simply transcendent. Her reading is even, unmannered, and precise without being stilted. In a word, natural; a word that fits her work perfectly.

From these poems it is possible to distill something of the ideal Mary Oliver poem. Her work finds it’s initial inspiration in close observation, as she noted in an interview in the Christian Science Monitor on December 9th, 1992. From her observations, mostly in the woods or along the shore, comes a musing or a question. The question sparks speculation, the musing, perhaps, wonder. The result frequently is a transcending of the moment, a rending of the veil, if you will: a glimpse of the unknown.

Of course, if one can reduce a poet’s work to a formula, the criticism alluded to in the opening paragraph of this post gains considerable purchase. However, if in fact the moment is transcendent, the glimpse illuminating, the criticism falls away. For instance, in the poem In Blackwater Pond, the speaker observes the trees and the cattails and the pond itself and suddenly every pond “is nameless now.” She observes that with everything she learns each year, still she is led back to this:

———————–the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Sometimes, the question is evoked and no answer or even speculation provided. At others, the poem opens with the question, as in Bone, when the speaker is “always trying to figure out / what the soul is,” then goes on to describe in some detail her discovery of a whale bone ear on the beach of her native Cape Cod. She moves on to thinking about the bottom of the ocean and how we all know what it’s like though we’ve never seen it but the soul

I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on,
through the pale-pink morning light.

In Goldenrod, she comes upon a simple field of this colorful if inglorious weed, observing bees and flowerlets and butterflies. Suddenly a breeze rises and she is “happy, and why not?”

Are not the difficult labors of our lives

full of dark hours?

And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far,

that it is better than these light-filled bodies?

All day

on their airy backbones

they toss in the wind,

they bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,

they rise in a stiff sweetness,

in the pure peace of giving

one’s gold away.

One final glimpse into Oliver and the world; in I Looked Up, Oliver spots something in the green branches of a pitchpine, a “thick bird, / a ruffle fire trailing over the shoulders and down the back -.” Her mind wrestles beyond the meaning of what she sees:

What misery to be afraid of death.

What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven.

When I make a little sound

it looked at me, then it looked past me.

Then it rose, the wings enormous and opulent,

and, as I said, wreathed in fire.

There are twenty more poems I thought worth their weight in effort, both to write and to read. All is not light and sweet in the world of Mary Oliver; there is Wild Geese and The Alligator, Lonely White Fields and The Bear, and many more. Death is always a hairbreadth away, as it is in life. Which is why we celebrate: without death, life is a party without end. And we all know how those go.

Don’t we?

Please consider joining us in our discussion of 3 poems by Mary Oliver at the Main Library in Classroom “A” on Thursday, January 8th, at 7:30 pm. We will be reading and talking about the poems “Wild Geese,” Music Lessons,” and “West Wind 2.” Preregistration is requested but not required. To register or if you have any questions, please contact either Don (412 622-1975, wentworthd@carnegielibrary.org) or Renée (412 622-3151, albertsr@carnegielibrary.org).

– Don


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Mary Oliver’s Red Bird

Even at her most agnostic, her most atheistic, Mary Oliver was always a spiritual, even a religious, writer. Her embracing of nature is all-encompassing, recalling the preoccupation of no less a poetic figure than William Wordsworth. In recent years, as seen in her last few books, she has evinced a new-found faith beyond the more general pantheism that always seemed to be just below the surface of many of her finest poems.

I have to admit, I approached this newer work with the kind of trepidation one has when hearing of a life-altering event involving a close friend; confronting a new-found faith in others that one does not necessarily share can be a daunting thing, most especially when it concerns an old friend. I’m happy to report that, as may be seen in her new collection of poems, Red Bird, this faith is not only a logical extension of her previous beliefs, it in fact firmly accentuates what has come before.

Mary Oliver’s wide appeal beyond the usual poetry reading community is easy to understand; her poems are rendered in simple basic vocabulary, are no less beautiful for that simplicity, and concern the everyday world around us. Her perception of things is acute; she points out in nature what we all might see if we took the time and had the patience to truly look. Beyond capturing the moment, she also supplies the resonance from which meaning may flow. When she is good, she is transcendent. When she is average, she is at least always interesting. Red Bird is a volume that may be read straight through and then bears, in fact induces, repeated readings. It is cohesive in that its overarching theme is present throughout. There are more than a handful of excellent poems here. Listen to this excerpt from Straight Talk from Fox:

Don’t think I haven’t
peeked into windows. I see you in all your seasons
making love, arguing, talking about God
as if he were an idea instead of grass,
instead of stars, the rabbit caught
in one good teeth-whacking hit and brought
home to the den.

Highlights include this poem, along with Invitation, Night and the River, There is a Place Beyond Ambition, We Should Be Prepared, This Day and Probably Tomorrow Also, the fabulous Of Love, I am the one; well, I could go on. There is even a powerful political poem, Of the Empire, that telescopes the general to the particular in a most damning fashion. If you listen closely, you may find there is a message just for you, as in the beginning of Invitation:

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy
and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles…

There is a wisdom here, the wisdom of long life, of loss, of longing, and of acceptance. But most of all there is beauty, a beauty not to be missed.


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