Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. 71 pages.
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trick of transparency, like all sleight of hand, does not admit close
scrutiny. To tag the parts of a poem that render its effects invisible is
a paradoxical aim, akin to explaining a joke. Conversely, it becomes all
too easy to spot the moment in a poem when we become distracted, when the
voice or image falters or picks up interference.
Let this provision atone for any negative remarks that follow. In an era as cluttered as ours, a reviewer feels off-target to fault Mary Oliver. For more than three decades, she has specialized in unfiltered observations of natural life—or, if filtered, then through the least invasive of lenses. Her portraits of birds and trees, snakes and flowers, lakes and skies, have tended to omit irrelevant memoir on the one hand and lumpy erudition on the other. Her ecology is that of a National Parks campsite, where you are instructed to leave no trace behind when you depart. This self-removal at the service of sharper vision is also present in the poetry of Gary Snyder, though his immersion in Asian studies, his Beat heritage, politics and itinerancy have conspired to make him wilder and more far-ranging than the poet of American Primitive (1984).
More pertinent than the Snyder comparison is Oliver’s debt to canonical New England poets, specifically Transcendentalists. Her work has few apparent dealings with the darker implications of Emersonian thought, Thoreau’s social program in Walden, or Frost’s embattled individualism. Instead, her observations take root in Thoreau’s journals and in certain passages from first- and second-generation English Romantics – as if she could recapture, for all of us, the thrill of depositing “I” in a wake of sensory impressions. Her poetry derives further resonance from Whitman’s effusions —his rapture, not his melancholia—and the ecstasies of Sufi mystics. Oliver occasionally reads like a good translation by Robert Bly.
Her most recent poems, from Why I Wake Early, reveal another imported strain: Elizabeth Bishop’s hunger to confide, to make intimates of her readers. In practically every poet except Bishop, this quality amounts to a lot of winking and looking back every few lines to make sure we are keeping up. Although Oliver never adopts the second-person pronoun to this extreme, such coziness often acts as an irritant.
To quote Oliver’s lines out of context, merely to back an assertion, may prove pernicious, flippant, unfair, but here goes:
I’ll tell you a half-dozen things
And once a deer, but a buck, thick-necked, leaped
(Confronting this last excerpt, one wants to retort: “Actually, we do mind. We mind that you mind. What’s so audacious about the heart / daisy metaphor that we would brook dissent?”)
The second piece of grit in the lens is an immodest piety. In the title poem, we are told that the same sun in the poet’s face shines also “into the windows of, even, the / miserable and the crotchety.” Then we are invited to take inspiration from the poet’s attitude before breakfast: “Watch, now, how I start the day / in happiness, in kindness.” It is difficult to imagine those lines—like the phrase “pale-pink morning light,” which closes the very next poem—having gatecrashed a collection by a poet of Oliver’s laurels. Too often she feels the need to generalize, casting her speaker as a kind of everysoul whose every encounter with nature is an epiphany to be celebrated as loudly as possible. (A poem titled “One” sports four exclamation points.)
Published “under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations,” Why I Wake Early opens with an epigraph from Herbert: “Lord! Who hath praise enough?” Following suit, Oliver invokes her Creator several times throughout the book.
O Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we
Unlike Herbert or Hopkins, Oliver the poet lacks a nuanced view of the soul or its sufferings, its repose or its resolution. In this matter, as in others, her justly celebrated spareness of diction is both a help and a hindrance. The varied shapes of her poems on the page, their easy enjambments and the generic images corresponding with tiny verse units—all of those traits appeal to the eye, but leave the aural imagination starved.
Oliver’s deployment of stanzas, her pacing of syntax, is nothing if not efficient. She disdains figures of speech that stray too far from the conversational, and while this prejudice saves her from pretension of one stripe, it cannot be called unaffected. With no compelling sound structure, sustained narrative, or convincing self-inquiry to support her rhapsodies, she often relies on amiable line breaks and fortuitous phrasings to carry the balance. At their best, Oliver’s images achieve a rare marriage of the humble and the genuinely startling, in short stanza shapes that recall sharp, inward puffs of breath. Here, quoted in its entirety, is “November,” which, along with “Lingering in Happiness” and “Freshen the Flowers, She Said,” may comprise the three best poems in the book.
The poem, for all its shortcomings, is welcome for a charm that does not boom over-confidence. Even a poetry that is not confessional can confide too much.