Mary Oliver,
American Primitive
(Little Brown & Co., 1984)

Mary Oliver wakes us to the wonders of the world.

Her poetry is an invitation to amazement, a way to find something startling and stunning in the commonplace. In her poem "When Death Comes," for instance, she writes "When it's over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms."

Under her alert eye, peonies break her heart as they open in "honeyed heaviness," mussels cling in "barnacled fistfuls," and moles crawl "plush" through their burrows. She documents the quiet occurence of fiddleheads unfurling, mushrooms shouldering their way through the earth, skunk cabbage arriving unapologetic.

It is as though she herself were a part of the earth, "so near / that porous line / where my own body was done with / and the roots and the stems and the flowers / began."

As she becomes and invisible observer, she can separate from world and offer it to us pure. One late summer morning, when she is unnoticed by a fox she thinks: "so this is the world. / I'm not in it. / It is beautiful." In this unique position she is privy to the reality of predators and prey. In this fierce wildness, death and violence are not aestheticized. The fox's "gate of teeth / slams shut" on the snowshoe hare, the owl "with his wild monkey-face" fills himself each night with "a red and digestable joy / sickled up from the lonely, white fields" and the vultures who we honor and loathe "sweep over / the glades looking / for death, / to eat it, / to make it vanish."

Here where nature is direct and unsentimental, she offers her own plaintive howl into the wilderness.

There is a mythical quality to her view of nature and its processes, a celebration of life that becomes religious. In a just-waked she-bear who rises "like a black and leafy ledge," Oliver finds "perfect love." In the snowy-throated gulls who come flying to gather the sea's gifts of icy and plump mussels she discovers "in this world I am as rich / as I need to be." And in the pleasure of the sun as it reaches out and warms you she asks "have you ever felt for anything / such wild love."

The natural world serves as a foil to what is human, and she allows us to see that other world through the translucent membrane of her work. From the burst of goldenrod to the flash of a deer's white tail to the water snake's disdain, she invites us to extract lessons of mortality.

In her spare poems she offers a kind of clarity. She gives instructions how to live our "one wild and precious life," telling us we "must be able / to do three things: / to love what is mortal; / to hold it / against your bones knowing / your own life depends on it; / and, when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go."

The power of her poetry earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for American Primitive. She also received the 1992 National Book Award for Poetry for New and Selected Poems. Oliver's other achievements include receiving a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1972-73), the Shelley Memorial Award (1972), Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1980-81) and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Achievement Award (1983).

[ by Daina Savage ]

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