Monday, August 20, 2007

Mary Oliver: Master as Pupil

Oliver, Mary. Why I Wake Early. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

I have yet to tire of Mary Oliver. In book after book, her words flow by like leaves in a spring, simple, uncluttered, a flash of elegance. Why I Wake Early slowed my enchantment.

Oliver covers the same ground: snapshots of the land outside the writer’s doorstep (and within). The diction keeps its clarity. No excessive modifiers. But there’s a bothersome element in a few of these poems - a fancifulness that I’d not before noticed, as in “The Arrowhead,” where the spirit of its possessor intrudes with too clever, too pat, too predictable dialogue.

“I would rather drink the wind,” he said
I would rather eat mud and die
than steal as you steal,
than lie as you still lie.”

The chastisement is unremarkable, more fitting for middle school reading consciousness. Or Oliver leans too heavily on the easy abstraction, stealing conclusion from her readers. For example, “Beans,” a severely hyphenated prose poem, concludes with this question: But, what about virtue? as if filling in the blank for the dull witted reader.

But Oliver redeems herself with the perfectly clean, evocative glimpse of “The Snow Cricket,” where her lines row across the page in spontaneous rhythm, with the reader as passenger, eyes open to her scene. There is the cricket, its “little mouth-cave,“ and the swell of loneliness as it sits “pale and humped” all evening in its “leafy hut in the honeysuckle.” Oliver entrances again. She pours out the stream of her vision uncluttered by concepts. She visits Blackwater Pond, the font of her visions, to introduce gentleman snake with his “lazy wake” and “narrow mouth,” using just enough verbiage, a modest modifier or two, just enough to open and point the lens of the readers’ sight. We follow her in the path of a beetle as it makes our narrow, busy, glum lives more destitute with its “sighing,” its “humming,” its existence nestled against the soft undersides of a fragrant flower. This is irresistible Oliver.

Is she a pantheist or a Romantic with her glorification of the simplest living being? More than anything, she is a storyteller. Her lyrical apologues show us the live lore. And if at times, her pen is a hammer or her words are bulbs of explanation or if she invokes a machinating “He” of biblical standard, then this is just the writer seeping in, a blunt aside. I can live with it - the master as occasional pupil is far more reassuring than alienating.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

...gentleman snake.... i heard that one snake is caled the gentleman of the snake world.. what snake is this, do you know?