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Mary Oliver’s Nature

Blue Horses by Mary Oliver
Penguin, 2014

For five decades, Mary Oliver has been writing poems of the natural world, earning her the Pulitzer Prize and many admirers. Her most recent book is slim with widely-spaced lines and generous margins, a book design that resembles puffed-up birds in winter cold. That spaciousness offers room for contemplation.

Oliver may not be “a poet’s poet,” as she is not as heavily referential as many other poets. Lucretius, Rumi, Shelley, Keats, and Whitman figure in her poems, but so tangentially a reader unfamiliar with them would not be stumped. The diction is plain, the syntax simple, and the sense of the poems clear. There are no bizarre line enjambments, no strange meters or forms. “No Matter What” looks like a rondeau but has only some of the features of rondeaus.

Mary Oliver expresses her intention directly in “What We Want”:

In a poem
people want
something fancy

but even more

they want
something inexplicable
made plain,
easy to swallow

This accessibility may account, in part, for Oliver’s wide popularity, but “easy to swallow” poems also risk becoming precious or prosaic, as in the poem “What I Can Do:”

The television has two instruments that control it.
I get confused.
The washer asks me, do you want regular or delicate?
Honestly, I just want clean.

“After Reading Lucretius I Go to the Pond” is reminiscent of Bashō’s famous frog haiku, until her fourth line:

The slippery green frog
that went to his death
in the heron’s pink throat
was my small brother

That fourth line signals Oliver’s signature personal engagement with the world she describes. Unlike Bashō, Oliver writes herself into the poems, and her appearance allows readers to step in too, as in the ekphrastic title poem – “Franz Marc’s Blue Horses”:

I step into the painting of the four blue horses.
I am not even surprised that I can do this.

Not confessional, but personal, these poems are Mary Oliver as spoken through nature. Less likely is the reverse, for we don’t learn so much about the natural on its own terms as we are given the natural world as exemplar, as in “First Yoga Lesson”:

“Be a lotus in the pond,” she said, “opening
slowly, no single energy tugging
against another but peacefully,
all together.”

The epigraph from Kabir suggests risk as another subject of the book: “If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive / do you think / ghosts will do it after?” Even if the risks here are gentle, metaphorically they suggest greater consequence, as in the ending of “If I Wanted a Boat”:

however, if I wanted a boat I would want
a boat I couldn’t steer.

In this book, however, Oliver manages to steer her craft capably down familiar streams, one of which is wonder, a subject which graces much of her work, as from “Good Morning”:

It must be a great disappointment
to God if we are not dazzled at least ten
times a day.


Elizabeth Bodien of Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, has had poems in Cimarron Review, Crannóg, Parabola, and elsewhere in the USA, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and India. Her collections are Plumb Lines, Rough Terrain: Notes of an Undutiful Daughter, and Endpapers. Currently she is working on a libretto.

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