Mary Oliver has published about twenty books of poetry. Each time I came across one, my admiration for her work grows. The latest in my collection is Swan: Poems and Prose Poems. As is true with most of her work, she spends a great deal of time thinking about and observing nature. She has won the national Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. The New York Times proclaimed her “far and away, this country’s best selling poet. Mary spends her time between Provincetown, Massachusetts and Hobe Sound, Florida.
As is the case with every collection of hers I have read, picking examples is never easy. Here is one about her beloved pet, Percy, titled “Percy Wakes Me (Fourteen)”: “Percy wakes me and I am not ready. / He has slept all night under the covers. / Now he’s eager for action: a walk, then breakfast. / So I hasten up. He is sitting on the kitchen counter / where he is not supposed to be. / How wonderful you are, I say. How clever if you / needed me, / to wake me. / He thought he would hear a lecture and deeply / his eyes began to shine. / He tumbles onto the couch for more compliments. / He squirms and squeals; he has done something / that he needed / and now he hears that it is okay. / I scratch his ears, I turn him over / and touch him everywhere. He is / wild with the okayness of it. Then we walk, then / he has breakfast, and he is happy. / This is a poem about Percy. / This is a poem about more than Percy. / Think about it” (13). To me, the sign of a true pet lover is talking to the pets. Guilty!
Another interesting poem is about a teacher. Oliver writes in “The Poet Dreamed of the Classroom”: I dreamed / I stood up in class / and I said aloud: // Teacher, / why is algebra important? // Sit down, he said. // Then I dreamed / I stood up / and I said: // Teacher, I’m weary of the turkeys / that we have to draw every fall. / May I draw a fox instead? // Sit down, he said. // Then I dreamed / I stood up once more and said: // Teacher, / my heart is falling asleep / and it wants to wake up. / It needs to be outside. // Sit down, he said” (21). Reminds me a little of my days in elementary school, except I wanted to read.
Here are a couple of short poems. The first is “Wind in the Pines”: “Is it true that the wind / streaming especially in fall / through the pines / is saying nothing, nothing at all, // or is it just that I don’t yet know the language?” (28). I have spent many days wandering through stands of oak, pine, hemlock, and Douglas firs, I always imagined different sounds for the wind. I don’t think it was the trees, it was all in my mind. And finally, “How Perfectly” calls to mind our own rose garden, which bloomed wonderfully this spring. “How perfectly / and neatly / opens the pink rose // this bright morning, / the sun warm / on my shoulders, // its heat / on the opening petals. / Possibly // it is the smallest, / the least important event / at this moment // in the whole world. / Yet I stand there, / utterly happy” (4).
Mary Oliver is a splendid poet with her short, “skinny,” Zen-like poems. I believe we are poetry soul mates! 5 stars.