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Hello, sun in my face. 
20th-Jun-2006 10:33 pm
Office girls burning poetry
Why I Wake Early
Mary Oliver


Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

--Mary Oliver, "Why I Wake Early"


By 2006, Mary Oliver is a familiar name among the small circle of book lovers who also profess a devotion to poetry. By my standards, it's a well-earned reputation: she is a constantly accessible poet and also a very talented one (say what you like about the Pulitzer, but it's no mean feat). So it is slightly odd to have somewhat mixed feelings about her latest work.

Why I Wake Early is Oliver's most recent collection of new poems, but that still makes me late to the scene, given that it was published in 2004. I haven't tracked the release of every one of her books, having discovered her only four or five years ago in the first place, but given the constant shapeshifting that Oliver's fellow Pulitzer winner Louise Gluck often pulls off, I expected to be surprised, perhaps to see Oliver's work take some new directions.

That was my error. Why I Wake Early is anything but surprising. It's sixty-six pages of exactly what we've come to expect from Oliver by now: lots of nature imagery, plenty of gentle self-effacement, tranquil meditations upon the status of one's life. If you demand that your poets be edgy and chameleon, then this book is a bust.

But it doesn't really end there. Why I Wake Early shows no indications of new directions in Oliver's work, but to some extent this is because her old direction works. If you're looking to be startled or shaken, try former poet laureate Louise Gluck, or Ai, or Jeffrey McDaniel. Oliver comes from a different mold, and speakers in a softer voice. The poems in Why I Wake Early are filled with all of her familiar warmth and gentleness, a book-long aubade that takes the reader in just as tenderly in the evening as it does in the morning.

Interestingly, Oliver is more overtly religious than I've seen before, from from the book's epigraph (George Herbert: "Lord! Who hath praise enough?") to "Look and See" where she sketches the portrait of the morning to "Logos" as she bids the reader to "Accept the miracle. / Accept, too, each spoken word / spoken with love." (Not that religious conservatives will go embracing this book; Oliver's sexuality would likely prove too problematic for many, which is very much their deep loss.) Simultaneously, Oliver shies away from idealizing the much-loved Creation, warily observing both bears' tracks and owls with the sort of awe that might paralyze prey. Elsewhere, in "Goldenrod, Late Fall," she remains keenly aware that much of what we take in from nature is what we have projected onto it in the first place, but underneath that is the world's great calm consistency, proceeding on regardless of what people imagine, "as good as a book for learning from." The notion is even dealt with overtly in "Some Things, Say the Wise Ones," as she wryly comments on her whim to imbue even the pebbles around her with personality.

Oliver constantly returns to the image of cups and vessels throughout the book as well--and ignoring any of the claptrap Dan Brown would feed you about feminine symbols, this is an appropriate motif for Oliver, who appears to see life and people very much in need of being filled. The image ranges from the tiny--a wren "drinking from his small cup of life", the reflection on the potential life that once filled a whelk's egg case--to the cosmic, as Oliver touches upon the notion of the earth as a vessel in which "the singular and the eternal" are "whirled back to the color of the sea and the sky."

Occasionally her images are a bit too precious--"let the fire put on its red hat" in the "November"--is a snag in an otherwise lovely poem, but by and large Oliver remains guided by both restraint and courtesy, making Why I Wake Early an excellent addition to the library; it might not startle the reader, but it will never fail to comfort and affirm, even as it edges neatly around the pit-trap of banality.


Logos

Why wonder about the loaves and the fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands.
If you say them with love
and the felt ferocity of that love,
the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speaking,
and don't worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.
Comments 
21st-Jun-2006 06:05 am (UTC)
*nods thoughtfully, reading the review*

Interesting. Where did you happen to come across Oliver's poetry initially? Or what drew you to it, rather?
21st-Jun-2006 06:19 am (UTC)
A friend introduced me to Oliver's work when I was...mmm...a freshman in college, I do believe. I picked up her Collected Poems then, and was hooked!

It's the constant gentleness of her work that appealed to me. She's very focused on beauty, but she is also preoccupied by the idea of kindness, and that all sounds incredibly trite, but it comes across with far more grace in her actual poems. "Dogfish"--the title poem from her Pulitzer-winning book--is my favorite example of this. Sweet, sad, ominous, and forgiving all at once.

When I studied overseas for a year, I took five books with me, and Oliver's Collected Poems was one of them--it was a book I knew I would need at times.
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