Friday, September 21, 2007

All night, in the dark

Why do we so admire the poetry of Mary Oliver? She is not the most technically proficient poet around, and there is a disquieting sameness to her work. But we come back to her again and again. My volumes of Oliver's collected poems are the most dog-eared of any on my shelf.

I think it is something about the way Oliver is able to get out of her body and into the skin of a hummingbird, a swan, a snake, or a black bear. She is a shape-shifter, a shaman. When she describes a grasshopper moving its jaws this way and that, we almost feel it is Oliver's own animal spirit behind those bulging orthopteran eyes.

It is a gift to have that sort of sympathy with the natural world; a greater gift to have the language to give it expression. Her poems are spells, incantations, as if she learned her craft at some ancient druid's knee. "My work is loving the world," she says, in her newest collection of poems, Thirst:
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird --
      equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
The new volume takes us somewhere we have not been before. She has lost her partner of more than forty years. Thirst is a book of grievings -- elegies between two hard covers, which are the old human longing for a Heaven where there is no loss and the modern self that knows that death is final. We follow her into that thirsty place, and watch, and watch, as she tries to create another Kingdom of "grace, and imagination..."
...and the multiple sympathies: to be as a leaf, a rose,
      a dolphin, a wave rising
slowly then briskly out of the darkness to touch
      the limpid air, to be God's mind's
servant, loving with the body's sweet mouth--its kisses, its
words--
      everything.