Monday, May 11, 2009

Book review of Mary Oliver's Evidence for LibraryThing

(Cross-posting a LibraryThing review. Crossing my fingers that I've smoothed out my formatting issues.)

I am very grateful to Beacon Press and LibraryThing for the opportunity to review Mary Oliver’s latest book of poetry, Evidence, through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I’ve been reading Oliver’s poetry for the past few years, and have come to admire it a great deal. Evidence is a strong addition to this excellent body of work.

Much of Mary Oliver’s poetry is about the natural world, perhaps more so than any other living American poet. While the speed of life is faster than ever, and so many of us are overwhelmed with images, information, entertainment, and daily responsibilities, Oliver encourages readers to slow down, seek quiet, pay attention, and really notice the world around them. She is not a “nature poet,” but one who focuses on nature to better see what lies beyond it. As she writes in this book’s title poem, “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

One of the poems is entitled, “There Are a Lot of Mockingbirds in This Book,” and it’s certainly true – and other kinds of birds as well. The book’s second poem is called “Swans,” and hints at love and loss, letting go, and faith. The poem’s speaker wonders that she could wish

that one of them might drop
a white feather
that I should have
something in my hand

to tell me
that they were real?
Of course
this was foolish.

What we love, shapely and pure,
is not to be held,
but to be believed in.
And then they vanished, into the unreachable distance.

In a poem entitled “I Am Standing,” the speaker is listening “to mockingbird again,” singing its song, and finally

my own unmusical self
begins humming:
thanks for the beauty of the world.
Thanks for my life.

Time and again, Oliver describes the beauty in nature, using words like “gifts” and “blessings,” and often seems to present these objects and occurrences as evidence of God. She writes in “It Was Early,” “Sometimes I need / only to stand / wherever I am / to be blessed.” But while there is a sense of spirituality in many of the poems, they are never preachy or heavy-handed. One of my favorites in this new book is the poem “At the River Clarion,” which begins, “I don’t know who God is exactly.” Some of the observations in this poem include:

If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck.
He’s also the tick who killed my wonderful dog Luke.
And also:

If God exists He isn’t just churches and mathematics.
He’s the forest, He’s the desert.
He’s the ice caps, that are dying.
He’s the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts.

“At the River Clarion” meditates on God, and nature (the River Clarion) – I might also say nature as evidence of God – but also on death and grief. Oliver’s longtime partner passed away just a few years ago, so she knows grief all too well. She writes:

There was someone I loved who grew old and ill.
One by one I watched the fires go out.
There was nothing I could do

except to remember
that we receive
then we give back.

At the end of the poem, the speaker contrasts herself sitting “in a house filled with books, ideas, doubts, hesitations,” and the birds with “wings to uphold them,” and the river “on its / long journey, its pale, infallible voice / singing.”

My only disappointment with this volume is that a few of the poems are simply too short. The very first poem in the book, entitled “Yellow,” is only four lines. It paints an interesting image, and it’s thought-provoking, and quite good, but I want more of it. There are a couple more of three or four lines – well-done, but seemingly incomplete. They need not be VERY long; I like “Landscape in Winter,” which has two stanzas, a total of seven lines – just enough to have a sense of movement, one image to another. But, this minor disappointment probably says more about my taste in poetry – and my desire to read as many wonderful lines as I possibly can of Oliver’s work! – than about any real shortcomings in the book.

Whether listening to birds or rivers, watching the sky or the trees, or feeling grief or gladness, Mary Oliver expresses an amazement with the world around her, and with life itself, that is far too rare today. She writes, “Halleluiah, I’m sixty now, and even a little more, / and some days I feel I have wings.” Her poems take flight. They make me want to be more like her.

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