A poetry book review by Lesley Ayers
by Mary Oliver
Beacon Press (2007)
Soft cover US$14.00
I first met the work of Mary Oliver when a friend lent me a copy of Why I Wake Early (2004). Her lyrical poetry expressed a great thankfulness for creation, and joy in the beauty and wonder of the world. It seemed that here I had found a modern day psalmist. Yet I wondered at the time, whether Oliver had a personal relationship with the God of creation.
So it was with delight that I opened a copy of Thirst to find in it poems that are overtly Christian.
Oh, feed me this day, Holy Spirit, with
the fragrance of the fields and the
freshness of the oceans which you have
made, and help me to hear and to hold
in all dearness those exacting and wonderful
Words of our Lord Christ Jesus, saying:
from "Six Recognitions of the Lord"
Mary Oliver was born in Ohio in 1935 and her illustrious career spans five decades. She has had numerous works published and received many awards such as the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The New York Times has pronounced her “far and away, this country's (America’s) best-selling poet."
Nature is the greatest inspiration for her poetry. “Poet Mary Oliver is an indefatigable guide to the natural world," wrote Maxine Kumin in Women's Review of Books.
Accessibility and simple language are hallmarks of Oliver’s work. She has an intimate, conversational style. “In an age when so many writers build walls between themselves and their readers, Oliver opens windows,” says Dara Mandle in her article “Nature Rules.”
Thirst opens with the declaration, “My work is loving the world” ("Messenger"). It closes with the title poem, “Thirst,” where “Love for the earth and love for you* are having such a long conversation in my heart”. In the pages between, the reader is invited in to hear that conversation. (* "you" refers to God)
There is a dual theme in Thirst. Alongside the growth of Mary Oliver’s faith the book also explores grief, as her partner of 40 years—and her literary agent—Molly Malone Cook died in 2005. While her lifestyle choice may not sit comfortably with some Christians, it’s to be hoped that they will still be able to appreciate her work, and her faith journey.
Oliver gently challenges with her fresh perspectives:
Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned—
…to live with my eyes open
from "In The Storm "
The reader is encouraged to really be aware. “Have you noticed?” is a frequent question.
Oliver says of prayer:
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak
Oliver talks of longing to be quiet before God:
When will my heart stop its prancing?
Lord I would run for you,
…I would climb the highest tree
To be that much closer
Eventually she hopes to become:
…like the wanderer who has come home at last
and kneels in peace, done with all unnecessary things;
every motion; even words.
from “Coming to God: First Days"
There is a repeated awareness that—in her relationship with God—words are superfluous or inadequate.
"Gethsemane" is a poem of beauty and compassion:
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
The wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move…
the lake….where once he walked…..
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.
There continue to be echoes of the Psalms:
Lord, when I sleep I feel you near.
When I wake, and you are already wiping the stars away,
I rise quickly…
from “More Beautiful that the Honey…"
Oliver sometimes stuns with simplicity. In "Percy (Four)"—titled for her dog—she captures the numbness of bereavement.
I went to church.
I walked on the beach
and played with Percy.
I answered the phone
and paid the bills.
I did the laundry…
Oliver's poetry has a seemingly effortless flow of rhythm and cadence. In the delightful images throughout Thirst,—such as an “uproar of mice”, a “muddle of birds,” and black ducks being “shrugged up on the shore”—she takes the ordinary and transforms it.
I have focused on one poem to illustrate Oliver’s use of rhythm and language. “Walking Home from Oak-Head” describes a walk in snowy woods. The rhythm in the first stanza and her use of line break gives weight to the opening phrase:
There is something
about the snow-laden sky
followed by the soothing, slowing repeat of
In the late afternoon.
This is enhanced by her phrase
…the lovely meaninglessness
as the reader enters the quiet world with her.
She uses alliteration frequently as in “something, snow-laden, sky “ and echoes vowel sounds “laden, late, elation."
The snow is personified as it begins to fall:
at first casually,
On arriving home:
I’ll stand in the doorway
stamping my boots and slapping my hands,
covered with stars.
The “stamping and slapping” has vigor and pace, yet in the skilled slowing of last two lines Oliver brings the poem to a place of transcendence.
There have been criticisms of her work. Her Christian stance has annoyed some readers. Others feel she preaches too much, or focuses on what they see as trivia in the light of world crises. Yet Harvard Review maintains that “Mary Oliver’s poetry is an excellent antidote for the excesses of civilization”.
For me, her work sings, consoles, challenges and delights. Thirst has definitely joined my “by the bed” selection of works to be dipped into, and be refreshed by.