The challenge in Mary Oliver's poetry is in its simplicity. She isn't about artifice or language pranks. She can't be reduced to "nature writer" or 'eco-poet" or cast as a zen-like recorder. Oliver wields a literary Occam's razor that reduces gigantic questions to light verse. In this pattern, Oliver's poetry achieves expansiveness while appearing single-focused. Her lyrical work is successfully deceptive. It's beyond limited definition, beyond spirituality.
House of Light is the fourth book of hers that I've tasted, following the poetry and prose of West Wind and Winter Hours, and her A Poetry Handbook, along with poems sprinkled throughout the internet. She begins with the universal query of intelligence, of otherness, of exteriority: Who has a soul? What has a soul? What is a soul? Answering those questions means we must look into the nature and conditions of consciousness. We have to break through the masochistic veil of delusion that both invites and deflects with our parade of intellect and knowledge and presumption. We work hard at finding the answer, we dwell on theory but are thwarted by some illogic. We try again. The circular work is frustrating, painstaking, self-involved. But we don't give up. We follow another circle. Fruitlessly.
Mary Oliver launches her book with this extremest of abstraction. But she avoids the eternal return of abstraction. Like a good Jesus, she recognizes that simplicity - texture and tongue and odor and heart - those are the ways to an answer. She gives us story-poems, real-life adventures at the pond at sunrise watching turtles and baby ducks. She taps emotion from our hearts - who could not feel the pang of the mother teal losing a charge to the snapper turtle? Her parable-poems allow the reader to find an answer. Our answer, whatever its shape or size, define Who has a soul? What has a soul? What is a soul?
The owl, the kookaburra, the pipefish (which I'd never heard of before), do they live for me? Can I presume longing, loneliness for these creatures? Am I awed? My heart extends and is acknowledged, like the waves emanating from a tuning fork, received by the tympani in the tunnel of my head. This blind acceptance, this visceral recognition - what is it? Is it the soul? Is it the complex interplay of prey and predator, the balance that learns to counter pain with perseverance? What is this survival of self that crosses species, the expansive view of all that lives, from the anole with its purple flush-puffer of territory to the rasp and saw of hidden songbirds, each announcing their presence, each one a dynamic that causes the other to exist or cease in the endless ebb and flow of creaturedom. We share space and it's more than rock, ground, air, water.
Now I stop and consider that Oliver did not choose education by degree. She chose education by touch, by morning walk, by observation and sensation.