Sunday, June 06, 2010

Mary Oliver, Halfway Through

I'm nearly done with Oliver's New and Selected Poems, Volume One. For me, it's a lot of lyric poetry to read at once. I was impressed, and a little horrified, when Dave Bonta undertook to read and review a poetry book every day this April. A little like someone vowing to eat three cheesecakes at a sitting. But I've gone along reading probably five to fifteen poems per day without bursting my poetry stomach.

I've started memorizing my favorite poem so far, “Some Herons,” but I'm finding it heavy going, with no rhyme and no regular meter to help me. And it makes me a little sad: even if I succeed in nailing this poem, I'll never have much of Oliver in my head, as I have Shakespeare or Blake. She'll always be in her books, indistinct and out of focus unless I have the text in my hands. I don't much miss those tricks of the poetic trade, otherwise, and I understand why modern poets feel that the extra ornamentation is not worth the cost, or even that it's just too frilly and fussy. But to me the consummation of love affairs with poets has always been memorizing their work. With Oliver, with most of the moderns, it's just not going to happen, not much.

Oh, she irritates me occasionally. I get tired of her consternation that animals prey on each other, and also of the “animals are so innocent and egoless and I wish I was like them!” poem, which appears in a variety of forms. The animals I know best -- dogs, cats, and crows -- are not at all free from ego, worry, or social anxiety. I've seen them get their dignity offended, try to impress their peers, harbor resentment. But I'm not surprised that Oliver romanticizes them this way, because if she has a weakness, it's that she stands on her dignity and innocence. She's not willing to do much clowning, and when she does confess, she confesses to things such as not giving as much money to a beggar as maybe she should have. C'mon, Mary. Do you never eat too much ice cream, covet pretty undies, watch trash television? Maybe not: but taking on the sins and absurdities of your people is actually part of the job description of a poet. It's not a part she does very well.

But. Her sense of beauty is intense. The herons' swamp:

The water
was the kind of dark silk

that has silver lines
shot through it
when it is touched by the wind

or is splashed upward
in a small, quick flower
by the life beneath it.

And even if she's unwilling to clown, she's by no means humorless. The first heron in the swamp is

an old Chinese poet,
hunched in the white gown of his wings

And the second to arrive is a “a blue preacher”:

The preacher
made his difficult landing,
his skirts up around his knees

If you know herons, their solemnity and stiffness, their odd combination of grace and gawkiness, you have to laugh at this accuracy. Oliver's eye is perfect. She misses nothing, glosses nothing over.

She's most famous, I guess, for her sententious poems, such as “Some Questions You Might Ask,” in which she fails to understand why only human beings are supposed to have souls -- the face of the moose is as sad / as the face of Jesus, she says, and why should I have it and not the anteater / who loves her children? I like those, but the ones I've enjoyed most have been pure description, or ones where the lesson, if any, is oblique – say “Rice,” in which she implores the reader, for reasons obscure but to me compelling, to go far away from the white tablecloth and lift a handful of wet mud; or “Crows”:

wherever you arrive
they'll be there first,

glossy and rowdy
and indistinguishable.
The deep muscle of the world.

Of course, I have twenty more years of her poetry to read, and I will not be surprised if she surprises me. But I'm not sure if I'm going to go straight on to that, or hop over to another poet for a bit. Probably hop. Maybe Elizabeth Bishop is next?

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