(New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2014)
Mary Oliver is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet whose visionary work has so captured the minds and hearts of her readers that she stands as the leading seller of poetry in America today. Her signature poems focus on the self’s relation to the natural world, and in her mediation-like poetry, she places herself typically in a position of wonder and awe at the living world. Her poems are often full of praise and she invites to reader to experience that same sort of connection she feels with the earth.
Her latest volume, Blue Horses, follows the path she has already established. In one poem, “I Don’t Want to be Demure or Respectable,” the poet asserts that it is too easy to forget the “important things” of the world such as the “singing” of the stones or the journey of the river to the ocean: “What traveling is that!” she exclaims. Though some may call it anthropomorphism, it is more than that. It is Oliver seeing life in things that we too often relegate to the unfeeling. To Oliver, the world entire is alive. A river “dash[es] its silver thumbs / against the rocks / or pause[s] to carve / a sudden curled space / where the flashing fish / splash or drowse.” The river, with the beautiful imagery of having “silver thumbs,” is later seen as an emblem of the perfection that is out there, and will “last, / as almost nothing does, / almost forever.”
Often Oliver’s sentience in nature may be juxtaposed to the transience of human life. “The Oak Tree Loves Patience” contains the title’s proposition, along with a mountain “still looking” for words to express itself and grass that “whistles and whispers / in myths and riddles / and not in our language / but one far older.” Our “weapons, love, poems” are “The briefest of fires” whose temporality stand in contrast to the enduring parts of the earth. Even the trees seem to exhibit a generosity not found in our human world. The trees in “The Country of Trees” have no questions or anxiety about religion, happy in their state, “As though they have been told everything already, / and are content.” These brief, lyrical poems relish a completion to be found in the earth, the joy of knowing that some things—and some things which are beautiful in their simplicity—go on despite human machinations and intervention. A bluebird may be happy with his being, and, again, does not ask unanswerable questions and houses no “dark thoughts.”
There are even poems in which Oliver expresses a magical side to nature, as in “Such Silence” and “Watering the Stones.” In the first, the poet waits and fully expects that the magical can happen in a forest; perhaps an angel may appear or perhaps “dancers with legs of goats.” In the other, stones she keeps in a bowl mysteriously “drink” water. Possibility is ever-present.
“I’m Feeling Fabulous, Possibly Too Much So. But I Love it” encapsulates perhaps the most pure example of joy in the book:
It’s spring and Mockingbird is teaching himself
new ways to celebrate.
If you can imagine that—that gusty talker.
And the sky is painting itself a brand-new
plenty of which is spilling into the pond.
I think, just for the joy of it, I’ll fly.
I believe I could.
There are a few other topics touched on in the book, such as her meditation on Rumi, and there are a few love poems, such as “Little Lord Love.” But always she approaches the topics with her arms characteristically open to experience. Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses is a brief book filled with astonishment and ardor.
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Jane Frazier is an Associate Professor of English at Lincoln University of Missouri. She has published critical articles as well as a book on the poetry of W.S. Merwin, “From Origin to Ecology: Nature and the Poetry of W. S. Merwin,” 1999, Associated University Presses. She is on the editorial advisory board for Merwin Studies, an online journal dedicated to the study of the work of W. S. Merwin. Dr. Frazier has also published poetry in over twenty journals including Orbis and Prism International.