Poet Mary Oliver died last January at age 83. What do you say about a poet who won the Pulitzer Prize (American Primitive, 1983), the National Book Award (New and Selected Poems, 1992), and a Guggenheim Fellowship; was given a fistful of honorary doctorates, and was a bestselling poet for most of her life? She published 33 poetry collections and four nonfiction or essay collections, and was recognized as one of the best nature poets ever. And she was one of those rare poets whose work brought affirmation from critics and the general public alike.
You can say a lot of things, but it might be best simply to recognize her for the eminence in the poetry world she was and be done with it. And yet that seems too abrupt.
I went looking for one of her works to read and discuss. I passed by the award winners and instead settled on Dream Work, the collection she published after winning the Pulitzer Prize. That first post-award collection would be a challenge for any poet; expectations would be high and the critical knives might be out if it doesn’t seem to measure up.
It measures up. If anything, it drew even more critical praise than American Primitive did.
Dream Work includes 45 poems. At first glance, it seems largely a collection of poetry about nature and the natural world. And certainly those subjects and themes dominate the volume—she has poems on everything on dogfish, trilliums, starfish, turtles, milkweed, black snakes, moths and more. This poem is a good example of the deep observation and detailed eye she brought to her nature poems.
In the morning they glide
just above the rough plush
of the marshlands,
as though on leashes,
long-tailed and with
tipped upward, like
dark Vs; then they suddenly fall
in response to their wish,
which is always the same—
to succeed again and again.
What they eat
is neither fruit nor grain,
what they cry out
is sharper than a sharp word.
At night they don’t exist, except
in our dreams, where they fly
like made things, unleashed
and endlessly hungry.
But in the day
they are always there gliding
and when they descend to the marsh
they are swift, and then so quiet
they could be anything—
a rock, an uprise of earth,
a scrap of fallen tree,
a patch of flowers
casting their whirling shadow.
My favorite word in the poem isn’t a word at all—“uprise,” a word that fits perfectly and brings to mind exactly what it intends. It’s one of the beautiful images she includes. The imagery is so vivid that you know you’re standing with her, watching those hawks with their “yard-wide” wings, tipping upward and suddenly falling.
Dream Work also includes other kinds of poems, poems that hint at the difficult life she lived as a child, and how she took refuge in the woods. There are poems about rage and whispers, about the need to leave and save her own life, and about her father showing up as a visitor. Mixed in as they are with the nature poems, these poems don’t seem out of place. For Oliver, the personal is the natural; nature is a refuge and an escape.
We had Mary Oliver for a time, and we are blessed that we did. She took us on walks with her into the woods, on the beach, and across hills, and then stopped us so we could look up and try to count the stars in the night sky. She showed us how to employ nature to come to terms with where we come from, and to point where we might be going.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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