Confidence Artist

As Reviewed By: Sunil Iyengar

Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. 71 pages.

The 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.[private]

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 inWalden, 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
that happened to me
in Indiana
when I went that far west to teach.
You tell me if it was worth it.


And once a deer, but a buck, thick-necked, leaped
into the road just-oh, I mean just, in front of my car-
and we both made it home safe….
– “The Poet Goes to Indiana”

What you have never noticed about the toad, probably,
Is that his tongue is attached not to the back of his mouth but
the front….
-“Look Again”

…At my feet the white-petaled daisies display
the small suns of their center-piece, their-if you don’t
mind my saying so-their hearts.
– “Daisies”

(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
Only look, and see.
-“Look and See”

On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God-

a worthy pastime….
-“Song of the Builders”

There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.
– “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does it End?”

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 snow
began slowly,
a soft and easy

of flakes, then clouds of flakes
in the baskets of the wind
and the branches
of the trees-

oh, so pretty.
We walked
through the growing stillness,
as the flakes

prickled the path,
then covered it,
then deepened
as in curds and drifts,

as the wind grew stronger,
shaping its work
less delicately,
taking greater steps

over the hills
and through the trees
until, finally,
we were cold,

and far from home.
We turned
and followed our long shadows back
to the house,

stamped our feet,
went inside, and shut the door.
Through the window
we could see

how far away it was to the gates of April.
Let the fire now
put on its red hat
and sing to us.

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.[/private]

About Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar, a poet, writer and editor in Washington, D.C., is a board member of the American Poetry & Literacy Project. His essays and reviews have appeared in Verse, The American Scholar, New York Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.
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