'Devotions' collects five decades of poetry by Mary Oliver

Oliver's work charts those moments when the temporal is touched by the transcendental.

Devotions By Mary Oliver Penguin 480 pp.

The first thing one notices about Devotions, a survey of Mary Oliver’s poems from more than five decades, is how big the book is – unusually so. At more than 400 pages, it registers palpably on the lap, a pleasant anchor through an autumn afternoon.

The large format is a departure for Oliver, whose long career has unfolded by the teaspoonful – in slender volumes, easily slipped into a knapsack or jacket, like field guides taken on hikes and picnics. It’s a case of form following function, since Oliver is primarily a writer about the natural world.

Like Henry David Thoreau, who famously did a lot of traveling in Concord, Oliver’s poems have mostly been inspired by her long walks within the woods and shoreline of Provincetown, Mass., a coastal community where she lived and worked for more than half a century before moving to Florida after the death of her longtime partner, photographer Molly Malone Cook.

Oliver is perhaps the most peripatetic poet since William Wordsworth, whose rambles on foot around England’s Lake District deeply informed both the pastoral sensibility and rhythm of his verse. Like Wordsworth, Oliver deftly communicates physical movement in her poems, even though many of them ostensibly celebrate the serenity of standing still. In “The Dog Has Run Off Again,” the grammatically fastidious Oliver nevertheless foregoes conventional punctuation to simulate a rushing current:

"but it has been raining all night
and the narrow creek has risen
is a tawny turbulence is rushing along
over the mossy stones
is surging forward
with a sweet loopy music
and therefore I don’t want to entangle it
with my own voice
calling summoning
my little dog to hurry back"

The creek’s momentum chimes with an equally powerful emotional current in the narrator, who’s overcome by the wonder of the landscape:

"look the sunlight and the shadows are chasing each other
listen how the wind swirls and leaps and dives up and down
who am I to summon his hard and happy body
his four white feet that love to wheel and pedal
through the dark leaves
to come back to walk by my side, obedient"

Oliver’s poems are often an exercise in ecstasy, charting those moments when the temporal is touched by the transcendental. We are not surprised to learn that she is a fan of Walt Whitman, who could find a door to the cosmos in a blade of grass. A continuing theme of her work is the way that such moments of perception can suddenly alter an ordinary hour, eternity sneaking up and tapping you on the shoulder, as in her poem “Drifting”:

"I was enjoying everything: the rain, the path
wherever it was taking me, the earth roots
beginning to stir.
I didn’t intend to start thinking about God,
it just happened."

In another poem, “Going to Walden,” Oliver says her friends tell her she’s missing out by not taking a trip to the Thoreau shrine at Walden Pond:

"Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are."

Oliver suggests that spiritual insight doesn’t really come from extended pilgrimages, but in an abiding fidelity to one’s home ground. Her poems are tethered in domestic routine: her daily walks, her house chores, her garden. They celebrate habit not as a hindrance but a liberation. In this way, even humble tasks can become a sacramental gesture, sanctified by the divine. In “Beans,” she mentions an insight that comes while surveying her vegetable plot:

"I have thought sometimes that
Something – I can’t name it –
watches as I walk the rows, accept-
ing the gift of their lives to assist

One can survey the many years of Oliver’s poems and find almost no overt references to politics or current events. In a world touched by so much violence and strife, are her musings about land and sea and sky merely an indulgence of escapism?

But a closer reading of Oliver’s poems reveals them as more than pastoral portraits rendered in cheerful pastels. She recalls Robert Frost in the shadows she brings to her vision, her acknowledgment of grief. In “After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond,” she admires both the heron and the frog he’s just consumed, aware that life is a ledger inked with gains and losses. Does one laugh or cry in the face of that reality? She decides to do both. “My heart dresses in black / and dances,” she concludes.

Oliver suggests that it is precisely because life is fragile and darkened by tragedy that we should celebrate and affirm what is good. “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate,” she writes in a prose poem called “Don’t Hesitate.” “There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left.”

One finishes “Devotions” with the sense that Oliver’s poetry isn’t a denial of our troubled times, but an answer to them.

Danny Heitman, a columnist with The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.” 

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