Twanging of a Harp: Sonny Williams on Mary Oliver

Reviewed: Thirst by Mary Oliver. Beacon Press, 2006.

I first came across Mary Oliver’s poetry when I was in high school, and her most recent collection, American Primitive, had the fresh imprimatur of the Pulitzer Prize on the cover. I was immediately taken by her vivid imagery, her Romantic and exultant descriptions of nature, and her conversational and accessible language. For me, her poetry was a “religion by revelation” that Emerson spoke of, yet, at the time, her strange observations felt more familiar than either Emerson or Thoreau. Nature became the cathedral in which to worship, and I was drawn to her visceral responses and the intensely sensuous bodily experience of her free verse pastoral lyrics. She loses herself within the body of another, becoming a fish or a whale. How I, too, wanted to be something else!

As many youngsters so often do, I was challenging my own faith, and I looked to literature as a way to figure myself out. I had yet to understand the likes of John Donne (how could a fifteen year old raised in a Southern Baptist home know what to make of a “three-personed God”?), so Oliver’s experiences in nature offered an alternative, and comprehendible, avenue to spirituality that freed me from what I saw as the strictures of religious dogma. I was taken by such narrative poems like “John Chapman” about the legendary figure Johnny Appleseed and how “his gray eyes / brittled into ice.” But I was most impressed by Oliver’s passionate observations of the natural world, like these lines from “Mushrooms”: “red and yellow skulls / pummeling upward” and dangerous as “shark-white death angels.” Or these lines from “August”: “When the blackberries hang / swollen in the woods” where she spends all day “cramming / the black honey of summer / into my mouth.”

Of course, I attempted to imitate her style, and wrote of “the tangled mess of honeysuckle vines” and of “buzzards that hung like black crosses overhead.” Yet, I soon realized that I had a darker take on things and required something more substantial; perhaps the gothic and grotesque naturally exist in those raised in the South. Eventually, Oliver’s eternally sanguine disposition began to rub me the wrong way. Over the years I continued to read her work and could still be delighted by a vivid image and a striking metaphor, but I often winced at the overwhelming optimism, at how everything was astonishing or amazing, and the dark moments that did arise were all too brief and the darkness not that deep. Mark Doty once wrote, “Oliver’s nature is never sentimentalized. The world is gorgeous but not pretty.” I think we need to revise that “never.”

However, her optimism, her intimate and conversational language, her gushing epiphanies in nature, and, subsequently, the implied belief in a higher power that accompany these epiphanies are precisely the reasons her books are forever embedded in the bestseller list. Though she is Easy Listening, there are certain elements of her work that are recurrent and carefully crafted. Oliver creates an intimate relationship with her reader as she favors writing in the first person; “I am watching otter,” “I see green-blooded worm,” “I dream at night / of the birds.” She increases this intimacy by also utilizing the second person, drawing the reader in for the experience with her; “If you want to talk about this,” “Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches / of other lives,” “If someone you didn’t know / told you this.” This “you” may be interpreted variously as the reader, an imagined observer, her lover, or, as in her most recent collection, God; “oh, Lord, / what a lesson / you send me.” Along with the second person, Oliver makes use of the imperative mood, “Listen,” “Look,” “Come,” “See,” making for a gentle didacticism. During the course of a poem she often incorporates interrogative phrases. She questions herself; “Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?” She questions the reader; “Have you heard / the laughter / that comes, now and again, / out of my startled mouth?” This approach again helps to intensify the relationship between author and reader, as if Oliver is standing with you on a path in the woods beside a pond observing the egrets. As Oliver once stated in an interview, “Such devices involve the listeners and draws them in. Of course this is all just so that you can soften them up and say what it is you really want to say.” Such questioning does indeed soften us up and makes her likable, as someone who is at the moment of profound discovery but without coming across as a know-it-all. Another pleasing aspect of her poetry is her phrasing. Oliver’s phrasing creates tension, building phrase by phrase toward an epiphanic or revelatory moment. She favors the four-line stanza with each line staggered, which at first glimpse seems to cascade down the page like a waterfall. Here is a typical example:

The flowers

I wanted to bring to you,

wild and wet

from the pale dunes

And still smelling

of the summer night,

and still holding a moment or two

of the night cricket’s

humble prayer,

(“Doesn’t Every Poet Write a Poem about Unrequited Love?”)

Actually, those stanzas work more like stairs, moving step-by-step, phrase-by-phrase, building in intensity toward the moment of revelation. Most of the phrases are prepositional and create movement:

“from the pale dunes”

“to the edge of the pond”

“through the scumbled leaves”

“from the thick water”

“after a night of rain”

“on the thick pines”

“on the far shore”

Her lines are not simply broken in an arbitrary manner. She will use a single- or two-word line, often punctuated by a comma, which freezes the moment, and allows her to control the pacing and release of images. Take this line from “Knife,”

By now

the hawk has flown five miles

at least,

What if I combine the lines into a single one?

By now the hawk has flown five miles at least.

This is a perfect line of iambic pentameter, but the pacing and tempo of the phrase has been completely altered. Oliver’s phrasing is essential in creating lines with their unique lyrical beauty. Her poetry is celebratory, often revealing surprising perceptions: “edges slide together / like the feathers of a wing . . .” (“Clapp’s Pond”).

In Oliver’s new book, Thirst, she reflects on her newfound faith in God—though I would argue this faith is not exactly new—and her grief over the death of her longtime partner. Oliver’s leap of faith isn’t nearly as intrepid as Mary Karr’s in Sinners Welcome. Karr makes the jump from agnosticism to Catholicism, whereas Oliver makes the relatively shorter step from transcendentalism to Christianity. The majority of Oliver’s poetry since her first collections deals with the natural world, Nature being those “essences unchanged by man,” as Emerson defined it. Indeed, her work is derived directly from Emerson and the Transcendentalists, as well as the New England naturalists, and she has been variously compared to Whitman and Thoreau. “[Nature] always speaks of spirit,” wrote Emerson, and the landscape and its inhabitants are a glimpse of God. Through meditation, as Oliver “wander[s] on slowly,” and communing with nature, she experiences spiritual instruction. For Oliver, everything in the world is a microcosm of existence, and the individual soul is identical to the world soul, or Over-Soul, as Emerson put it. In this new collection, Oliver continues to revel in the physical world and gain spiritual insights from it, but unlike her previous work, she directly addresses the Lord, though she moves from a kind of pantheism to a rather equivocal Christianity.

Oliver’s spiritual insights are largely derived from nature, and these insights naturally lead her to meditations on the afterlife. Previous to this collection, Oliver treated the afterlife as a mysterious darkness. In “When Death Comes,” she says, “I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: / what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?” or “they shuffle forward / into the floor of darkness.” There is often the sense of reincarnation, though a material one, as moccasin flowers “become the trees.” In “Heron Rises From the Dark, Summer Pond,” she expresses a faith in the afterlife much more explicitly: “I think / how unlikely it is / that death is a hole in the ground / how improbable / that ascension is not possible.” Now in this latest book, Oliver finally concedes that what she has been observing this whole time are elements of the Lord’s work: “Of course I have always known you / are present in the clouds, and the / black oak I especially adore, and the / wings of birds” (“Six Recognitions of the Lord”). There is an abiding hope in an afterlife throughout Thirst, though she neither seeks clear-cut answers, nor does she offer any possible vision of the afterlife. It continues to remain an eternal mystery.

One hopes to see artistic changes, some growth or alteration in style and/or idea, especially when a career spans over four decades. I immediately think of Pablo Neruda who moved from an early surrealist style to the political Canto General to the emotionally generous Cien Sonetos De Amor to the prophetic Fin De Mundo. Such a comparison, however, may be unfair given Neruda’s “Cyclopean talent.” I make such a comparison because his poetry, as Oliver’s, is joyously Whitmanian, earthy, devout, and sensuous. He, too, wrote affirmative poetry, but his optimism waned in his later years, for he recognized “predators gnawing within.” Furthermore, Neruda’s poetry, unlike Oliver’s, is politically engaged (some may argue hers is a politics of ecology). As poet-critic David Baker notices, “She persists in providing many poems with the same, perhaps too-easy solution–politically and aesthetically–merely to rise and float away from the troubling world, to erase it or to erase the self within that world.” Though Oliver wrote more formally structured poems in her early career, moving then to free verse, her attitudes, themes, and style have virtually remained unchanged. She continues to “float away.” I was hoping for possibly a magnum opus, some great movement or rigorous study in Oliver’s art that would stun me. Unfortunately, such is not the case. I was given fair warning, however, as the first line of the first poem in Thirst reads, “My work is loving the world” (“Messenger”).

In her new book Oliver continues her idealist project and writes of snakes, otters, cormorants, sparrows, and the like. She is “astonished,” “rejoicing,” “covered with stars” “spin[s] with joy,” and lingers “to admire, admire, admire.” It must be a fortunate existence to see nothing but loveliness despite the extensive evidence of violence and death. She doesn’t want to see “your smile diminished” or “your diminished spirit,” for most certainly these would dampen the party. For Oliver, “It is a / wonderful life. Comfortable.” In fact, the few dark moments that do appear are glossed over as “dark hours” and “striving to lift the darkness” and “sudden, sullen dark moods.” Oliver never lingers too long on these potentially interesting and important instances of distress, not allowing herself or us to be sullen for more than a line or two. The book is billed by Beacon Press as one in which Oliver is “Grappling with grief” (the book is dedicated to her late partner and literary agent Molly Malone Cook). Though all of the poems may be understood as Oliver’s attempt to “experience sorrow as a path to spiritual progress,” some of the poems are more directly related to her grief over Cook’s death, like “After Her Death,” in which she opens the Bible, given to her by “the strange, difficult, beautiful church” and looks for solace by turning “To Matthew. Anywhere.” Yet these laments are not that grief-stricken, nowhere near the distressing pitch of Donald Hall’s elegies for Jane Kenyon in Without and The Painted Bed. Though Oliver “spoke her name / a hundred times” [“Percy (Four)”], and recounts the “long summer days” (“Those Days”) spent with her, I was unable to sense an intensity of loss. We all grieve in our own way, but the same acute attention Oliver gives to natural objects is not apparent in these poems. The collection as a whole is absent of Oliver’s usually lush and luxuriant adjectives, her surprising metaphors and rapturous visions. Instead, we are presented with rather commonplace and ordinary poetry.

Don’t flowers put on their

prettiness each spring and

go to it with

everything they’ve got? Who

would criticize the bed of

yellow tulips or the blue


So put a

bracelet on your

ankle with a

bell on it and make a

a little music . . .

(“The Poet Comments on Yet Another Approaching Spring”)

The immediate sensory experience that makes up so much of Oliver’s poetry is less intense here, falling into the realm of “inspirational verse,” with all its trite comments and uplifting sentiments. Though she appropriates some biblical language (“darkest hour,” “went down upon”), the diction is decidedly flat.

Many of her poems come across as overly pious. There is an overt holier-than-thou attitude, for she often reproaches the reader. In the poem “The Fist,” Oliver attempts some ironic humor by telling us we shouldn’t see the sun as a fist:

There are days

when the sun goes down

like a fist,

though of course

if you see anything

in the heavens

in this way

you had better get

your eyes checked

or, better still,

your diminished spirit.

This comes across as more accusatory and self-righteous rather than funny, as if her vision is somehow more valid than our own. Later we are told the heavens do not have a fist since it would have been shaking for a thousand years “at the dull, brutish / ways of mankind.” Do we not also have evidence to the contrary, that the heavens have indeed been shaking their fist at us for thousands of years? We are fortunate, for we encounter a heaven that is kind and patient; “Instead: such patience! / Such willingness / to let us continue!” This is nothing like the God I remember, who could be particularly brutal and bloody, who did quite a bit of fist-pounding, and who annihilated “heaven’s own / creation” on several occasions.

In other poems, such as “Praying,” a spiritual infantilism abides. She tells us to pay attention to not just the blue iris, but weeds and stones.


pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try

to make them elaborate . . .

This may work for one’s personal philosophy, but it doesn’t work as art. This poem would work better in a book titled Seven Steps to Spiritual Fulfillment.

It seems Oliver simply inserts “Dear Lord” and “God” in poems where in any of her earlier poetry a pronoun would be used. Yet some poems have the feeling that Oliver is logically wrestling with the notion of God, where the emotion and spiritual desire for God is actually earned, rather than merely intuited. One of the better poems of the collection is “On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate” (Psalm 145). Told in eight sections, it follows after the tradition of the psalm, as Psalm 145 opens, “I will extol thee, my God.” Oliver opens the poem by walking on the shore searching for the mysteries of God in nature:

. . . scatter of broken

clams, empty jingles, old

oyster shells thick and castellated that held

once the pale jewel of their bodies . . .

I like that word “castellated,” its root being castle, a place safe against intrusion. But the possible irony is that the fortress the oysters lived in might have been breached, for they “once” held their bodies, or they could have simply died. She returns later and observes seagulls feeding on a hundred beached squid.

. . . as I watched

the big gulls went down upon

this sweetest trash rolling

like the arms of babies through the

swash—in a feathered dash,

a calligraphy of delight the beaks fell

grabbing and snapping . . .

This scene is not simply one of death, even as those squid like the arms of babies are being devoured, but one of glory, for God is in everything.

So it is not hard to understand

where God’s body is, it is

everywhere and everything . . .

She does not assume to know what God’s purpose may be, where life and eventual death all may lead to, and her purpose is not hope of heaven, “But to enter / the other kingdom: grace, and imagination, / and the multiple sympathies . . . to be God’s mind’s servant . . .”. She ends by giving thanks to the Lord and with her desire to reach God.

O Lord of melons, of mercy, though I am

not ready, nor worthy, I am climbing toward you.

Yet even in poems such as this one, the message doesn’t move far beyond a cotton candy theology. Psalm 145 does indeed speak of the Lord “righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works,” but Daniel also says, “all the wicked will he destroy.”

In Oliver’s work, there is too much twanging of the harp. David was in trouble and helpless (“Thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress” Psalm 4), and God gave him strength and courage, so he sang praise to a gracious God. Suffering, trouble, and helplessness are all too absent in Oliver’s poetry. There are too many flowers that are “opened in perfect sweetness” and that “look up / into the blue sky / or, with thanks, / into the rain” (“The Poet Visits the Museum of Fine Arts”). There is too many a bird “shouting its joy as it floats / through the gift you have given us: another day” (“More Beautiful than the Honey Locust Tree Are the Woods of the Lord”). Too many unoriginal and ordinary lines like “I would climb the highest tree / to be that much closer” and “I want / to see Jesus, / maybe in the clouds.” I invite Oliver to come to Texas where several people claim to have seen Jesus in a tortilla.

This book will be marked because it is when Oliver specifically addresses God; however, Thirst is not a grand addition to her oeuvre. She has expressed her spirituality in much more effective ways in her earlier collections, though there is never any real struggle with faith, with doubt, with the presence of evil in the world. Those of you who are fans of Oliver will no doubt not be disappointed, particularly “If it is your nature / to be happy.”

About SWilliams

Sonny Williams lives in Dallas, Texas. He edited the anthology Story Hour: Contemporary Narratives By American Poets. He has written a novel, The Escaped, and a collection of poetry, Absinthium.
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