Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver

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On Mary Oliver and Resisting Poems of Gladness

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Last Thursday, the poet Mary Oliver died; by mid-afternoon, my social media feeds were flooded with friends mourning her passing and expressing gratitude for her work. These friends—many of them poets, but also a minister, a pianist, an 18th-century scholar—wrote eloquently of Oliver’s impact on their lives: how she’d taught them to pay attention, how she’d comforted them in hard times.

Reading the testimonials, I was moved, and sad for the loss of someone who seemed like a fascinating and kind person, but also—what was this unsettling emotion tucked beneath the other ones?—a little bit envious of these friends who’d had their lives enriched by Mary Oliver’s work. I’d never read Oliver, other than a few poems here and there. How had I missed her?

This question buzzed in the back of my mind as I scrolled through post after post, and then I began to realize: I’d never delved into Mary Oliver because I’d never let myself. Although I’d never really reckoned with why that was, I was familiar with the widespread critical dismissals of her work, like David Orr’s dig in The New York Times, in which he disparaged O Magazine’s profile of Oliver by writing “about [her] poetry one can only say that no animals appear to have been harmed in the making of it.” I knew that in my two decades of studying and writing poetry, no one—not a teacher, not a friend—had ever pressed a Mary Oliver book into my hands, saying, “You’ve got to read this.” I knew the air of condescension, or at least apology, that so often accompanied a mention of Oliver’s poems; at conferences, in grad school bars, if the conversation turned a certain way, someone might say, “Well, Mary Oliver has a poem—I know, I know—but—” and everyone would smile understandingly.

But if I’m being honest, I also had my own set of preconceptions. I knew that Mary Oliver’s poems were popular and beloved. I knew she wrote about celebrating nature. I knew she was considered “accessible.” I knew that her books were always well-stocked on the tiny, sad poetry shelf of every bookstore. I’m ashamed to say that these facts combined to make me wary, even though I also write about the natural world and think of my work as relatively “accessible” (though my books are not, alas, well-stocked in every bookstore), even though many of the poets whose work I most admire fall into one or more of these categories, and even though surely “beloved” is one of the best monikers any of us can hope to earn. I’d read some of Oliver’s individual poems, of course, and a decade ago when I was going through a period of intense anxiety and depression I came across her oft-quoted “Wild Geese” and felt an almost tangible sense of relief at its clear-eyed and compassionate opening lines, which tell the reader:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
        love what it loves.
Even now, typing those words, I’m comforted. Still, I’d never purchased one of her books, never checked one out from the library, never even gone poking around online for her greatest hits. As I read tribute after tribute, I prodded my vague guilt, trying to find its source—yes, I’d unfairly cut myself off from a poet I should have read, but surely this wasn’t the first time I’d missed out on important work. So what was it? Slowly, the deeper underlying worry began to pulse through: was it possible that, despite my best efforts to resist proscriptive poetry doctrines, somewhere along the line I’d internalized the unspoken tenet that accessible poems of praise and wonder are less worthy of real attention?

As a beginning poet, I was wary of anything that smacked even slightly of sentimentality. I learned it was safer to eschew the autobiographical, easier to polish up my dark imaginings until they gleamed. In those early years, what I wanted most was to protect myself from accusations of softness. And though my work became increasingly confident as I kept writing, it wasn’t until my most recent book, a poetry collection centering around a tornado that devastates a small town, that I began to understand it takes some bravery to risk being perceived as soft. That book includes a number of autobiographical poems about the raw intensity of motherhood, and several more written in praise of both the natural and domestic worlds; these were topics that I’d long understood to be dangerous ground. How easily a foot might slip from motherhood to mawkishness, from humming dusk to Hallmark card!

But those were the poems I wanted most to write, and I like to think they stayed on the right side of that tipping point between sentiment and sentimentality because, like any poem that hopes to represent an experience accurately, they paid attention. In writing them, I tried to be as honest and precise as I could. Another oft-quoted Mary Oliver sentence is this one: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” I love this line. It seems to me as good a directive for writing poems as for living life.

So I’d been feeling good about consciously shaking off reductive precepts about subject matter and approach. And I’d been happy, too, with my work to help my students become skeptical of voices that try to dictate what poetry shouldn’t do. For years I’ve taught that anything can be a ripe subject for poetry, and that poems aren’t limited to one tone or mood. Poems can be funny! I remind my students. Really good sincere love poems exist!

But the morning of the day that Mary Oliver died, one of my poetry students approached me after class and asked if I could recommend any poems that were…she hesitated…less bleak than the ones we’d been reading. She asked me this tentatively, as if she knew it wasn’t something a real writer should want or request, and I was flooded with teacher-guilt: had I, through the poems I emphasized and the ones I left out, inadvertently been teaching my students that poems of comfort and celebration were somehow less-than? I thought about the poems we’d explored so far this semester—all poems I love, all poems of great craft and skill…and all poems that dive into the world’s darkness and swim around. It isn’t that I don’t love and teach hopeful poems, too—but, I realized, by not teaching any in the crucial first few weeks of the semester, I had implied parameters in which I don’t believe. The student took out her phone to jot down notes, and quickly I recommended Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic. I recommended Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. I pointed her to Twitter, where the poet Chen Chen had recently started an excellent thread of “happy poem” recommendations. Then I went home to the news that a poet who had made her career out of observing and celebrating this world had left it.

I didn’t pay attention to Oliver’s work when she was alive, and that was my own failing, stemming from my own fear. Thinking about this over the past few days, I’ve resolved to incorporate more poems of wonder and solace into my teaching, and to work more consciously to show students that these subjects aren’t off-limits for writers; indeed, aren’t they so much of what we look for in the literature we love most? I’ll be sure, too, to emphasize that just because a poem embraces joy doesn’t mean it can’t also acknowledge suffering, and vice versa—an essential duality I’ve seen underscored again and again in the Mary Oliver poems being posted over the weekend. We’ll discuss the particular risks and challenges that might accompany writing poems that dwell in gladness; we’ll discuss, too, the much greater risk of writing as though poetry doesn’t belong in the business of celebration.

A few days ago, I ordered a copy of Mary Oliver’s Devotions: The Selected Poems from my local bookstore. Though they usually have her books in stock, the owner told me, people have been buying them up since learning of her passing. I’m looking forward to getting the book. I plan to read it slowly, after the kids go to bed, a few poems at a time. I plan to pay attention. When I’m done, I’ll lend it to my student.

Must-Read Poetry: October 2017


Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in October.

For Want of Water by Sasha Pimentel

Pimentel renders passion through crisp, cutting lines. In “The Kiss,” “I’m mad for gravity though / I’m bound, diagonally, to / you.” And: “Leave me // to wither while moss weeps / in the corners, our halo liquid / as yolk, waving from our bodies’ heat / our divinity melting.” Later, in “Late September, When the Heat Releases”: “A sage brush flowers, / and all night long, your skin rippled, softening // through gaped window, the cathedral long / with bells.” For Want of Water is a hot book: life in the desert, desire laid bare. “We are learning how to lie down quietly / each afternoon, to let // whimpers fall over us, through / the air, and through // our skin, to forget our wet mouths, their hungry gestures.” A great book doesn’t need two narratives, but there’s a parallel current of pain in this book. “The wives in Juárez are used / to slumping their bellies to their knees.” This grief is thick: “The violins in our home are emptied / of sound, strings stilled, missing / fingers.” Love and struggle, lust and pain, all here under the same poetic roof.

Good Bones by Maggie Smith

Come for Smith’s viral title poem, but stay for her range as she builds a notable collection, one suffused with grace, and—dare I say it—hope. Poems like “First Fall” make her narrators feel like careful guides, each line a gesture, a lesson: “The first time you see / something die, you won’t know it might / come back. I’m desperate for you / to love the world because I brought you here.” This book is full of wonders. Of sky: “As you move through it, you make a tunnel / in the precise size and shape of your body.” Of the past: “The chairs are empty. The children / are unwrapping golden butterscotches / in the cool, shuttered houses.” Of the wisdom that comes from grief: “Where do you carry your dead? . . . what cut shape is made / whole by opening? I mean besides the heart.” Good Bones breathes mystical, pastoral wind, while also hitting notes of longing. The world has to be falling apart—it has to be a place where the narrator might ask “Where is your voice now…What has the land done to your tongue?”—in order for us and our words to lift it back up.

Civil Twilight by Jeffrey Schultz

“The calm refinement of civility, / A feeling that the worst of things happen beyond the bounds of us, / Happen, somehow, beyond us, without us, out in a world as wide / As it is unimaginable.” Civil Twilight is a surreal trip of a book. Schultz describes our world, but does so in a murky, tired tone—as if we have stumbled out of a daze to finally see the light. I felt somewhere in the range of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in these pages, my senses both bombarded and soothed: “We walked, the sky above us fig-flesh / And flesh and baton-black at the edges, and on the bus benches and fences // Around us the Graffiti Eradication Task Force’s patches of color, / Earth toned and muted, a sort of bland abstract expressionism.” The State has exploded into some nearly apocalyptic organism, and Schultz is like some haggard oracle—spent and disgusted with violence and obfuscation, turning to language—there to document the fall: “called here to gather / In memory of what by the end of this will have already been forgotten.”

Who Reads Poetry edited by Fred Sasaki and Don Share

Poetry is most often defended by poets, so this anthology is a welcome addition to the chorus from outside voices. From Neko Case to Christopher Hitchens, Roger Ebert to Roxane Gay, we hear spirited confessions of those converted to poetry. Ebert recalls his Catholic school assignment to memorize a poem. He never forgot William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl.” Lieutenant General William James Lennox, Jr., the fifty-sixth superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, sees poetry as an essential tool for communication “because it describes reality with force and concision” and “confronts cadets with new ideas that challenge their worldview.” Jia Tolentino is not a poet, and never talks about the form with others: “that, in the end, is what made me free” to observe, experience, and realize “I basically know nothing, and that acknowledging this position is a beginning and never an end.” Poetry is malleable and moving; a form that will never tire of importance. Who Reads Poetry is an invaluable testament to a simple truth: we all read poetry, in our ways. As Aleksandar Hemon says, poetry helps us understand “what it meant to live.”

Advice from the Lights by Stephen Burt

Advice from the Lights is buoyed by two themes: the imagination of youth, and the search for body: its shape, outline, expectations. “If I can’t be weightless,” Burt writes, “or glide among twigs, or sate / myself on dew, then let / my verses live that way.” We begin in 1979, when “I could have trusted my instincts if I had any,” when “I had become convinced / that character was fate.” A year when “My bedtime and I were both eight.” Soon Stephanie arrives in the collection, a second self whose first poem ends in a question, whose other appearances infuse poems with the anxiety of identity: “Because I can’t ever appear / as I would like to appear, / I once tried to make it so you couldn’t see me at all.” Yet there is young hope, as in “Fifth Grade Time Capsule”: “I dream of the day / when I am decoded and vaunted.” Burt’s year-by-year cataloging gives Advice from the Lights an immediacy within its nostalgia, a compelling ars poetica of self.

Madness by Sam Sax

“I’d say write everything & lean into what most terrifies you:” Sam Sax’s advice for writers applies to Madness, a book saturated with misdiagnoses, anxieties, fears, and the paradoxes of bodily desire. In “#hypochondria,” the narrator writes “if i lived two hundred years ago // i’d have been bled nightly, / i’d have slept at the foot of a holy man’s bed / i’d have lapped up his snake waters.” Sax’s book feels like a funhouse of debunked treatments, a suffering mind’s headlong dive into nightmare. In “Willowbrook,” the narrator’s father worked at an asylum: “something funny happens / when a person becomes a patient / the name changes & everything / that follows is bandages.” This book winds its way in and out of these institutions, their corridors and their darkest rooms. Madness wonders: “what does it mean to be descendant / of something monstrous?  / to still love the monster?” Can we ever escape unscathed?

Devotions: Selected Poems by Mary Oliver

Oliver’s religious sense has been considered before, but this volume is quite clearly curated and presented—from the title on to the selections—as a work of (Gerard Manley) Hopkinsesque devotion. It might seem like a small gesture of design, but as a hardcover, Oliver’s play with white space feels almost spiritual. It is affirming that a poet so widely read as Oliver feels new with this work. The selections are ordered from most recent, Felicity, on to No Voyage and Other Poems from the early 1960s. Among those earlier poems, there is the gentle yet ultimately firm “The Swimming Lesson,” where “the endless waves / Reaching around my life” force the speaker to swim. Or even better, to learn “How to put off, one by one, / Dreams and pity, love and grace,— / How to survive in any place.” My favorite is “Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957”: “Once, in summer, / in the blueberries, / I fell asleep, and woke / when a deer stumbled against me.” She takes us, almost effortlessly, somewhere else. Oliver’s selected is the type of book to leave out on a table and hope somebody—perhaps those not yet converted to verse—will page through and find, inevitably, a voice they’ve been looking to find.

Small Gods by Matthew Minicucci

Minicucci offers readers a gentle slant on the observed world. In “Wedding,” the “tabernacle / door slides closed like some gilded / impossible hotel.” I linger on that image and drift to the opposing page, where, in “Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians,” “On resurrection: to the dead, the living seem so pointlessly busy.” Like his fine debut chapbook, Reliquary, Minicucci’s new book is suffused with religious nostalgia, a wonder welded to the culture of a Catholic sense, but distant from firm belief. The tension gives structure to the book. We read epistles. We hear of Aquinas. We see a poet clothe description with ancient cadence: “Aperture and embouchure of the living word. Speak, friends, if your mouths have tongues.” This lifts the language; gives Small Gods the song of myth. Tucked between the book’s mystical bookends are mathematical and astronomical works; it’s as if the poet is trying to find worthy forms, or trying to make his voice worthy of forms. There are no easy answers here, but the scars are reminders of struggle: “Yes, blessed are those who believe without seeing. But blessed more are those who must accept the silvered hangnail of this proof when pressed deep within the cavities of their own flesh.” Words can’t do the ineffable justice. Maybe “salvation is a missive I read backwards.”

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