Mary Oliver's Evidence: Poems
Mary Oliver’s poetry is a place in which to dwell—a field, a river, a shoreline that wraps its arms around wild things, and preserves precious moments that appear as the seasons shift. It is about attention and patience, just as love is about attention and patience and about quietly stepping away from our own four walls. It is about memory, and reflecting upon what can only be experienced when we respectfully wait for birds and other creatures to take their turns watching us. It is about praise, thanksgiving, and astonishment. It is, surprisingly, not about the poet—other than that she is the one who has experienced what she is showing us.
There are certain features that are obviously characteristic of Oliver’s poems. She seems always to be alone, and out-of-doors, observing the ordinary and extraordinary manifestations of nature, and simply telling us about them with delight and wonder. In “Swans,” for example, she tells of a flock flying overhead, “over the dunes, / they skimmed the trees / and hurried on.” She shows us something of how she felt, “their shoulder-power // echoing / inside my own body”—how she wished a feather had fallen, so “I should have / something in my hand // to tell me / that they were real”—and how this was foolish, because,
What we love, shapely and pure,
is not to be held,
but to be believed in.
Her conclusions don’t seem to be pushed or didactic, but simply part of her experience.
Rarely do people appear in her poems—not because she is some kind of hermit but because her preoccupation is with animals, birds, and trees. A young man is mentioned in a poem about a deer but only as the one who later shot him down with an arrow. A wild conductor is described in a poem about an experience with music. The Chinese poet, Li Po, is written about as a fellow lover of the natural world.
There is a simplicity and clarity in her work that is sadly absent from much of the academic poetry of the last few decades. Even though she has ignored their pretentious trends, Mary Oliver has still received numerous honours: the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for American Primitive (1983) and the National Book Award for New & Selected Poems (1992), among others. What is more impressive is that, according to the New York Times Book Review, “she is, far and away, this country’s best selling poet.”
There is a strong spirituality within her books, voiced in decidedly Christian language. In her poem “Spring,” she personifies faith: “Faith / is the instructor. / We need no other.” He speaks to her in a young man’s voice, and she tells us, “Of course I am thinking / the Lord was once young / and will never in fact be old.” She doesn’t tell us that they are one and the same but asks, “who else could this be...?” It is almost irrelevant, though, whether Mary Oliver is completely orthodox in her faith or not, because she points at what she feels is worthy of our observation and, mostly, lets us come to our own conclusions.
One example is how she playfully permits herself the unbiblical idea that angels are the souls of the departed, with wings in the tops of trees. “I have lost as you and / others have possibly lost a / beloved one, / and wonder, where are they now?” (“About Angels and About Trees”). This is more about missing a loved one than a doctrine of heavenly beings, although she seems here to have limited hope. The poet appears more comfortable with questions than answers, in this regard: “Will death allow such transportation of the eye?” she asks (“Imagine”); “we will all find out” is as much of a reply as she permits herself.
Sometimes she hovers on the edge of pantheism. In a poem that begins “I don’t know who God is exactly” (“At The River Clarion”) she says,
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.
Rarely does her own belief clarify itself, as though she has lost faith in human clarity. “Let me keep my distance, always, from those / who think they have the answers,” she says (“Mysteries, Yes”). In this poem she is distancing herself from those pushing scientific answers, but there also seems to be more of a distancing from specific theological answers in Evidence, than in Red Bird (2008)—and more spiritual aloofness in Red Bird than in its predecessor Thirst (2006). In Thirst, several poems use conspicuously Christian language. “I want / to see Jesus, / maybe in the clouds / or on the shore” she says (“The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist”). “On the hard days / I ask myself / if I ever will. // Also there are times / my body whispers to me / that I have.” In Evidence, the only direct reference to Jesus—if we exclude her use of the word, “Lord”—is to a procession through a Mexican street by those carrying “The flagellated Christ” (“First Days in San Miguel de Allende”). The thirst is of the people, not the poet.
Does her use of biblical language mislead us into attributing Christian faith to her? Oliver frequently speaks of praise, of prayer, of holiness. She writes, for example, “Sometimes I need / only to stand / wherever I am / to be blessed.” (“It Was Early”); she uses such terms as ”glory“ and “Halleluiah.” She does not speak of other religions or ideologies, yet draws her faith more from the natural world than from the Bible. Again, things were more pronounced in Thirst, where she even has a poem entitled, “Coming to God: First Days.” I suspect that once religious people had claimed her as their own, they may have also started placing demands upon her. She is far too private a person to be comfortable with that. Even though she is well known, it has been quite a while since she’s given an interview.
At times, Oliver’s poetry can be a bit repetitive. She almost seems to write the same poem over and over again—expanding on a subject, perhaps, but not necessarily adding much to what she has eloquently said before. Reading her collections is an experience of mood, attitude, and values, and so I find that my least-favourite Mary Oliver poems have much in common with my favourites. The problem is their similarity of tone, language, ideas, and content. She humbly jokes about this tendency in Red Bird where she calls a cycle of quite divergent poems on a common theme, “Eleven Versions of the Same Poem.”
What makes certain poems specifically memorable, though, is when they are telling a story, such as in “Winter and the Nuthatch” (Red Bird ), about a bird she has, through much patience, coaxed into eating from her hand. Or in “At The Pond” (Evidence)—about one summer when she went to a pond every morning, and the baby geese would climb over her body. The poem “More Honey Locust” seems to be a continuation of something that has gone before, either “When I Am Among The Trees” where the trees explain what we have come into the world to do or, more likely, “More Beautiful than the Honey Locust Tree Are the Words of the Lord” (both from Thirst). In “More Beautiful...” Oliver says, “I wanted Christ to be as close as the cross I wear.” In “More Honey Locust” she describes the blossoms as “white fountains” and twice calls the seeds holy, asking us to give thanks—concluding that the honey locust is (or our thanks “for such creation” is) “a prayer for all of us.” In a similar way, “Almost a Conversation” is independent yet follows after an earlier poem, “Swimming with Otter.”
Red Bird was a common character in her latest new collection, but this time, “The mockingbird / opens his throat / among the thorns / for his own reasons” (“Deep Summer”); there’s even a poem with the tongue-in-cheek title, “There Are a Lot of Mockingbirds in This Book”, and common to each of these poems is the thorn bush. You’ll also find swans, hummingbirds, and many other birds by name—plus wolf, mink, otter, and lambs—and receiving as much attention, various trees, flowers, and grasses.
The poet wants to influence us in the way we view the world. In the title poem she says, “all beautiful things, inherently ...excite the viewer toward sublime thought.” This is the “Evidence” she is speaking of. She expects us to be awestruck: “if you have not been enchanted by / this adventure—your life—what would do for / you?” she asks.
Since Mary Oliver’s poetry is filled with observations of creation, with praise and questions, it is an ideal place to dwell—to meditate—and to consider what our lives should be.