Plotting the Resurrection
October. . . and Larry

The (Almost) Perfect Poet: A Review of "Swan," by Mary Oliver

Awan In his inimical way, G.K. Chesterton once said that "the poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese."  Perhaps what he was saying was that there aren't many topics that poets haven't spoken to except for cheese, yet who knows what he meant?  I don't care.  It's fun to hear even if I don't understand it.  That's true of poetry too.  Even when you don't understand it on the first or second reading, or at all, it should still be fun to read, to hear the music of the words, to see in your mind's eye the images it provokes.  And yet sometimes a poetry comes along that is both accessible (if still a little mysterious) and fun to read and listen to.  That would be Mary Oliver.

In her latest book of poetry, Swan, Oliver, now in her mid-seventies, does not disappoint.  This book of 47 poems and much white space simply blesses the reader.  She doesn't stray from the familiar places and themes she has explored in other books --- nature (that of the marshes and beaches of her home at Cape Cod), faith (albeit non-specific), aging (with grace), and her faithful companion dog, Percy.  Reading these short poems I find welling up in me a deep thankfulness for all that God has made, for life itself, and a wonder at a Creation that continues to supply a poet's inspiration, even in her 75th year.  That alone is reason enough to purchase the book.

Oliver simply has not lost her wonder.  Take this first poem, "What Can I Say," which gently nudges the reader to listen, to be still, to wait (on God?):

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I'll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
     and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
     chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
     were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

Reading this, how can you ever look at a stone or a leaf or a river in the same way? Oliver has the ability to look at Creation and see humanity, like "On the beach, at dawn:/ four small stones clearly/ hugging each other."  Or in the short, almost not there, "Today":

Today is a day of
dark clouds and slow rain.
The little blades of corn
are so happy.

The rest of the page is blank, white.  I think to myself how absurd it is to spend good money on mostly blank pages, and yet if you think like that you won't read poetry much less buy it.  In this world where information stretches from edge to edge of monitors and videos beckon and text splashes, flashes, and scrolls across the screen, poetry reminds us of how thin and shallow all that information can be, and yet how four short lines can be ridden to deep wonder.  If you stop, that is, before you press on.

I mentioned faith, and it is true, there is a kind of faith here, though more mystic than Christian. Oliver is forever provoking us to consider the sacredness of life, as in this poem, "In Your Hands":

The dog, the donkey, surely they know
           they are alive.
Who would argue otherwise?

But now, after years of consideration,
          I am getting beyond that.
What about the sunflowers? What about
          the tulips, and the pines?

Listen, all you have to do is start and
          there'll be no stopping.
What about mountains? What about water
          slipping over the rocks?

And, speaking of stones, what about
          the little ones you can
hold in your hands, their heartbeats
          so secret, so hidden it may take years

before, finally, you hear them?

Reading these poems, I find it appropriate that the poet quotes Emerson in her epigram at the beginning of the book: "'Tis curious that we only believe as deep as we live."

In one poem, there is this wonderful line --- "Joy is not a crumb" --- and I think, how could it be?  To look deeply at Creation, to see the world God made in all its richness, how could one be anything but awestruck, almost wordless, and Oliver is, like the good poets, economical in words but liberal in heart and spirit.  She writes on and on about swans, foxes, pines, squirrels, turtles, woodchucks, the sun and moon, a lark, the herons, beans green and yellow, the pepper tree, morning and night --- a lexicon of praise, almost --- almost, that is, if she could but plainly acknowledge the Maker of all this life. (In all this particularity, one poetic misstep: the word "Obama," jarringly out of place!) Still, she is more profitable to read than many so-called Christian poets in that her poems are rooted in the particular, in a natural revelation, not in religious abstractions.  They incite praise, intended or not.

In the end, Mary Oliver, who in the first poem of the book wondered what she had left to say, reacts to the real or imagined prodding of an editor who told her to fill up more pages with this: "So, this is all I can give you,/ not being the maker of what I do,/ but only the one that holds the pencil."  So that's it: a gospel superintended, and Mary Oliver a faithful apostle of that truth.  That's enough for me.  If as Robert Browning said, "God is the perfect poet," then Mary Oliver is "the almost perfect poet."

If you want your money's worth of words, don't buy this book.  But for those of you who treasure an apt word and can take a mostly empty page as a room in which to wander and wonder, buy this book. Read every poem at least three times.  Read some aloud. And then wander and wonder around outside and make your own.