For many fans of Mary Oliver, Swan will be a cause for celebration. The slim volume offers more than the poet’s strongest work in years; it also makes readers feel as if she is including them in this phase of her journey.
That combination is hard to resist, considering the quality of Oliver’s work – which has earned the Pulitzer Prize – and the fact that her poems usually reveal so little about her own life. Yet in this collection, her 20th, Oliver serves as a guide to the natural world and the landscape of her poetry. That dual role begins in the first poem, which opens with a bold question: What can I say that I have not said before?
Many well-known poets have answered that query by focusing on loss and mortality or resorting to stale language and a repetition of earlier ideas. Yet Oliver’s response is lovely and compelling:
What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.
Those lines are classic Oliver: evocative, apt, and pulsing with wisdom. But then she adds another level by telling readers to visit the art museum, the chamber of commerce, and the forest because:
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
That combination of witnessing to and engaging the audience is surprising, and inviting. And from that point on, the reader is eager to follow Oliver, who delivers one strong poem after another. The subjects seem familiar – a hummingbird, stones on the beach, a rose – as does her striking language. But by using “you” and “I” in the poems, she allows readers into her private world again. Those moments feel like gifts, and they make the writing even more resonant.
As the book progresses, Oliver continues to pique interest by introducing a subject – such as a fox she sees along the road – and writing about it in several poems. Each appearance adds richness and complexity. The same is true of the Percy series (about her late beloved dog), which continues here after appearing in previous books. In “Percy Wakes Me (Fourteen)” she describes a simple, almost mundane situation, and then challenges the reader’s assumptions with her closing line: “Think about it.”
That comment could apply to many other poems in this book, which seem simple on the surface, yet belie the depth she so often achieves. That’s why Oliver’s small revelations – about her viewpoint, likes, or her desire to keep bearing witness – feel so important. The reader wants to hear more because no other contemporary poet understands or captures the natural world with the skill and grace Oliver does. In “The Poet Dreams of the Mountain,” she writes:
I want to look back at everything, forgiving it all,
and peaceful, knowing the last thing there is to know.
All that urgency! Not what the earth is about!
Those lines demonstrate Oliver’s ability to be a wise and impeccable guide, which she does in most of the collection. The only time she falters is in “Four Sonnets,” which feels forced and self-conscious, as if she tried to prove her relevance by using jagged line breaks and being “creative.” A simple canvas would have been less distracting and allowed her authenticity and autonomy to shine.
Those are the qualities readers have always loved, and what they find in “The Poet Dreams of the Classroom” and “The Poet is Told to Fill Up More Pages,” two of her most memorable poems. In both, Oliver must acquiesce to others’ demands, but refuses to do so in her mind or heart. That independent spirit, along with modest disclosures about her life or writing, opens new vistas for readers. “Swan” is quiet yet monumental, because Oliver seems more engaging – and more three-dimensional – than in many recent books. For readers who have underestimated her work or stopped reading it in recent years, as this reviewer had, “Swan” is a pleasant surprise, and was well worth waiting for.
Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.