Mary Oliver’s poetry is as perfect as my favorite sweater, though not always quite so comfortable. Her attention to detail and the natural world are typical of her work, and present throughout this collection. She places one poem questioning the location and definition of the soul early in the book and another answering that question towards the end, so it is tempting to claim that this collection is about the pursuit of the soul, or maybe our human search for the meaning of ourselves and life. But I don’t think it is (exclusively) about that. Oliver’s work has always forwarded the notion that everything around us is alive, and this work is much the same. Great literature, great poetry in particular, can be read many ways, and depends upon the mood and context of the reader as the craft and intent of the author. Oliver’s poems function on many levels, but regardless of specific interpretation, they create a mental space in which the reader can feel wonder, peace, and an openness to knowledge. Her work “inspires” in the religious sense of the word, as she invites readers to consider, to reflect, to meditate or pray. Her poems are easily accessible, but certainly reward continued thought and habitual rereading. Some books of poetry leave one feeling like a dieter at an all-you-can-eat buffet, but Oliver’s work is more than fulfilling. This one is definitely worth the money.
Here is a short-ish poem that I love from this collection. I hope I don’t get in trouble for posting it here. (Does it help that this isn’t her most recent collection?) It would be a crime to excerpt it.
Why wonder about the loaves and the fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands.
If you say them with love
and the felt ferocity of that love
and the felt necessity of that love,
the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speaking,
and don’t worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.