When Mary Oliver read to a packed auditorium in Boston in late October, she told the audience that her work and life mission haven’t changed over the years. Her new book, “A Thousand Mornings,” demonstrates that fact.
In these pages, the esteemed and much-loved poet continues to observe and celebrate nature, as she has done for decades. Her voice and her writing are clear, sure, and strong as she revisits a familiar theme – the beauty, rhythms, and intelligence of nature, which can inform human consciousness. Both her talent and spirit seem undimmed, even as she addresses the current phase of her life and considers the passage of time, changes in her body, and the death of her beloved dog, Percy.
Yet where some poets would focus on what they’ve lost, Oliver’s perspective leads her to ask “Am I living enough?”
The opening poem sets the stage for that question, when the speaker, feeling miserable, looks to the sea for comfort and receives a short, poignant answer: “Excuse me, I have work to do.”
The speaker has work as well, and in the second poem, she begins a meditative journey, exploring the nature of prayer and asking if opossums, cats, and other creatures pray. Every description – spare and carefully chosen – explores another layer of the subject and moves toward a turning point where Oliver introduces a singing wren. The little bird, voice filling the air, prompts an important realization: “what could this be/if it isn’t a prayer?/So I just listened, my pen in the air.”
That view is classic Oliver, as are several praise poems that show the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet climbing trees to count their leaves, joyously spinning around and around, and asking, “Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?/ Have I endured loneliness with grace?” The answer to both is yes, as readers know from previous work and will see in the next few pages, which shift in tone and mood. In “Hurricane,” Oliver addresses a dark period in her life by describing a storm that made trees bow and leaves fall. Despite the damage, the trees produced new leaves, defying logic and seasons. That unlikely growth allows Oliver, now in her late 70s, to look at her own mortality without losing hope: “For some things/there are no wrong seasons./Which is what I dream of for me.”
Hints of sadness color the collection, as when Oliver describes the brevity of life or says, in a bittersweet moment, that “It’s impossible not/to remember wild and want it back.” But just as spring overtakes winter, energy and hope rise in these poems, despite major losses. Instead of mourning Percy, for example, Oliver shares a vision in which she meets the irrepressible dog on the beach and hears his view of the afterlife: “Yes, it’s all different,” he said./You’re going to be very surprised.”
Oliver fans won’t be surprised by the grace and ease of these thoughtful, inviting poems that articulate, in various ways, how loving and studying the natural world can help the mind rise above the limits of physical experience. Again and again, Oliver chooses a mental posture of praise that allows her to connect to the “one world,” as she calls it, where
"we all belong to
sooner or later
is a part of everything else
which thought made me feel
for a little while
quite beautiful myself."
The title poem, “A Thousand Mornings,” reinforces the idea that one must continually choose the light of morning over darkness, and Oliver’s willingness to do so gives the book much of its power and allows the poet to explore important new facets of a familiar path.
The penultimate poem is a tribute to Percy that echoes a poem by Christopher Smart and praises the dog for his attentiveness and his ability to laugh “a true laugh” and enter sleep without arguing “whether or not God made him.” Oliver shares those same qualities, as this collection beautifully shows.
Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry for the Monitor and The Washington Post.