Just as I’d thought that I’d imbibed the sweetness and the crust of Mary Oliver, traced her thoughts on the craft of writing, believed I had an inkling of what moved her, along comes Blue Pastures, a gift dropped into my hands.
Here is another Oliver: the truant school kid in Ohio, hauling Walt Whitman in her backpack, the high school grad who was privy to the “secrets” of Edna St. Vincent Millay. In Blue Pastures, there is also the familiar naturalist, trekking for miles in search of an owl’s nest, and the poet of the ponds and coves, of Provincetown beaches, cataloguing the detritus of Herring Cove, the “bright trash of the past,” and giving us her “Sand Dabs,” entry moments that may or may not lead to a finished poem.
This collection of vignettes is about recollection and revelation. In “Staying Alive,” the poet I’d thought so private says:
Children are powerless, and in difficult situations they are the victims of every sorrow and mischance and rage around them, for children feel all of these things but without any of the ability that adults have to change them. Whatever can take a child beyond such circumstances, therefore, is an alleviation and a blessing.
I quickly found for myself two such blessings - the natural world, and the world of writing: literature. These were the gates through which I vanished from a difficult place.
But this is not a story about victim or anger or the sludge of grievance. Far from it. This is Oliver’s remedy: “… having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.” So much for the critics who want to contain her in the realm of “nature poet” or “romantic poet.” So much for the harpies who call her asocial, who clamor for human messiness in her lines. Oliver found her cure in the wellspring of adjacent worlds: writing and nature.
Blue Pastures teems like a school of brilliant fish; it has the luster of an eggplant, supple and smooth and dark. Her language mimics the lyricism of her verse: elegant and simple. She observes and absorbs and shines back to us what she sees. She is the Magician that channels, using the wand of the pen. This collection is testament to her urge to not just write but to witness, and not just witness but to become participant in what’s out there. As Oliver says: “It is the instant I try to catch, … not the comment, not the thought.”
Evaluating this book, in the scheme of other Mary Oliver books I have read, I want to call it the finest. But this unreserved enthusiasm comes each time I get a taste of Mary Oliver. It’s immediate and it endures. So that this response illustrates what Oliver calls the service of poems: “I look for them to be ongoing presences within my life, not interludes-not places apart.”