Do you love the poetry of Mary Oliver? I just reread DREAM WORK (1986). There are so many wonderful poems in this volume - poems about nature, such a source of inspiration for Oliver. But these poems do not stop at surface description. Instead, they demonstrate how nature helps us survive the cruelties in this world.
The very first poem of the collection, Dogfish, is simply astonishing in its fresh depictions and the turns of mind. Oliver describes the dogfish as ”some relaxed and beautiful thing,” and in imagining a smile on its face, asks, “And you know/what a smile means,/don’t you?” From there she “wanted the past to go away” like “a hinge,” “a wing.” In another turn, three small fish appear around which the body of the dogfish (“one black sleeve”) could easily fit. With that, a question arises about being able to love – “And we all know/how that one goes,/don’t we?” Such rhetorical questions are just right in tone. Oliver notes that the story of her life is like that of everyone trying to survive, about kindness and meanness, about “having to swim through the fires to stay in/this world.” And in the final turn, the three fish are urged to dash away from “the hopeless future,” in the shape of the dogfish, “bulging toward them.”
In Rage, Oliver describes the “you” who left his “bitter taste” on the “damp rose” of the child’s body. That child is left a tree “that will never come to leaf.” What a poignant, yet unblinking, way to portray the sexual assault of a child.
Following this poem, in Wild Geese, Oliver finds a way through despair in nature. There she finds her place “in the family of things.” She speaks to the wounded in all of us, saying, “You do not have to be good./ . . . You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.”
In Consequences, Oliver asks “How do any of us live in this world?” – once again displaying the profundity that can be found in a well-chosen, well-placed rhetorical question. In that poem, we see Beethoven “settling at the piano.” And we hear Schumann running up “the dark staircase, humming. (Robert Schumann.)
Members of the Tribe is peopled with Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner, and Van Gogh. And in an asylum, Oliver takes apart the “deep stitches/of nightmares – “good, human work,” she calls this. She is quick to add that this “has nothing to do with laying down a path of words” – what Yeats and Whitman do. While they dance[d] for death,” the man who cleaned Michelangelo’s brushes “lived to be a hundred years old.”
One summer, Oliver learned “little by little to love/ our only world.” (Starfish.) She heard a voice she “recognized as [her] own,” and was determined “to save the only life [she] could save.” (The Journey.) Finally, in a visit from her father, she saw “what a child must love . . . what love might have done.” (The Visitor.)
In One or Two Things, Oliver speaks of the idea of “forever” as “a sharp iron hoof/in the center of [her] mind,” and says it requires an idea “to lift the hoof.” For years, Oliver struggled “just to love [her] life,” only to be cautioned by the brief-lived butterfly not to “love [her] life too much.”
In Bowing to the Empress, Oliver describes the natural order in an unsentimental way. She acknowledges that the hunter is what “keeps everything/enough, but not too many” and that the prey’s senses are “so sharply tuned/by the notion of oblivion.”
The Waves is a moving tribute to fishermen, who do not call the sea beautiful, but only say, “See you later.” A year later, the bones of those dead fishermen return “in the glittering,/laden nets.”
As I hope you can tell from this brief sampling of some of my favorite poems in the book, DREAM WORK demonstrates why the poetry of Mary Oliver has been enjoyed and admired for more than thirty years.