Two poetry collections focus on how to think, how to choose

Mary Oliver and Kay Ryan both offer insightful new work.

Felicity: Poems Hardcover – October 13, 2015 by Mary Oliver Penguin Press; 1St Edition edition 96 pp.

Readers who expect poetry to convey wisdom may appreciate Felicity, by Mary Oliver and Erratic Facts, by Kay Ryan. Both books highlight the importance of choosing one’s focus moment by moment. Yet where Oliver’s work brims with gratitude and joy, Ryan’s illustrates how the unchecked human mind becomes untamed and unruly.

Oliver sets her mental compass early in “Felicity,” which features brief, simple poems on two main themes: “the journey” and “love.” In the opening poems, the speaker searches for signs of spring, ponders life’s mysteries, and challenges the notion that reality is limited to what we see. Each piece provides a nugget of insight, as with “It’s mostly attitude” on one page, “There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled” on another, and “I have refused to live/ locked in the orderly house of/ reasons and proofs” a few pages later. 

That approach echoes the distinctive voice and vision that have made Oliver a fan favorite for decades and have led to many accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize. Here, as with all of her work, the poet celebrates nature and the Divine. She also chooses to offer praise and to act without fear. In Cobb Creek, for example, she stands at the creek edge and wonders whether to jump in or shrink back. While some might waver for several minutes,

I don’t spend much time on it,
I jump
And for the first time in my seventy-seven years,
I fall in.

What a beautiful splash!

The result of this and other decisions is that Oliver’s perspective remains radiant and uplifting, rather than dimming with age or disappointments. Even when the speaker describes losses – such as places that no longer exist or belongings she gave away – the writing does not descend into sadness but quickly regains sure footing.

The book’s second section centers on love and illustrates the surprised delight that results when the speaker gives her heart unreservedly, rather than being overly cautious:

Everything that was broken has
Forgotten its brokenness. I live
Now in a sky-house, through every
Window the sun. Also your presence.

Each wispy poem reinforces the idea that life is richer and sweeter when one expresses joy and thankfulness. As the work progresses, Oliver’s passion for her beloved parallels her love for God. Everything builds toward the book’s final poem, where a voice asks if she is happy, can live with unanswered questions, and if she has found a hand to hold.   

Her poignant replies, and the poem’s last stanza, reflect years of small choices that have led to a deeply satisfying life. That example of how to think and choose gives the book its power and pleasure. 

“Erratic Facts,” by Kay Ryan, also demonstrates the impact of people’s thought patterns. In these pages, the speaker serves as omniscient guide, surveying the landscape of the human mind. That topography, as the poems show, is full of boulders that seem to only move with efforts of glacial proportions. Even then, the mind resists change, as in these lines from “On the Nature of Understanding”:

You made progress,
it would be a
lengthy process,
sensing changes
in your hair and
nails. So it’s
strange when it
attacks: you thought
you had a deal.

Ryan’s tight, crisp writing makes the subject matter fascinating, even as it highlights the contradictions and double-mindedness that lead people round and round. Thoughts, like horses, can break out of their pens, and people can escape their mental confines. In order for that to happen, though, one must put things in proportion, and interiors

must fit inside/
in general. With
spaces left besides.
Swift justice to
rogue sizes, is what/
we say – we have to
say. No one can
get along the
other way.

The collection reveals many of the mind’s tricks and quirks, such as finding comfort in limitation, not taking action right away, and believing the illusion that things that stay in place are secure or firmly planted. Ryan, a Pultizer Prize winner and a former US Poet Laureate, seems to delight in sharing wisdom about her ever-changing subject. Occasionally, she also looks to animals or inanimate objects for further insight into human behavior. 

While Ryan’s approach and tone are unlike Oliver’s, she also concludes that love is important and that light can dispel some darkness. In the penultimate piece, she questions her own thinking and reminds readers that even when something has been struck, “loss doesn’t get/ into the subsets/ of absolutely/ everything.”  

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