Away from the Cape, I don't much care for the poetry of Mary Oliver. Away from Cape Cod, the landscape she has spent her long career mapping in her poems, I reply in my head to her simple, straight-forward declaratives with a polite nod and a stifled yawn. Her observations of nature seem obvious to the point of banality. As a poet she strikes me as the literary equivalent of the stranger standing next to you at the zoo who can't resist pointing out, "Boy, those lions sure are big!"
When she's not describing the specific, when she ventures into the abstract, she sounds precious or pretentious or bored, as if she herself isn't interested in the parts of her own poems that aren't about creatures moving but she feels obligated to wax philosophical from time to time for variety's sake or to fill out a verse.
When I like one of her poems it's almost always the case that what I liked about it was its echoes of another, better poem by another better poet. Well, one other, particular better poet.
"Finches" is a nice enough poem about how people can't resist ascribing human thoughts and feelings to animals because we want nature to be about us.
Ice in the woods, snow in the fields, a few finches singing.
I look up in time to see their raspberry-colored faces
and the black tears on their breasts.
Of course they are just trying to stay alive
like the frozen river and the crows.
But who would guess that, the way they dangle the bright
necklaces of their music
from the tops of trees?...
But it's a better poem because it segues in my head into this one:
The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.
The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place's name.
No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.
The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.
Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm;
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.
For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.
It's not fair to compare Oliver to Frost, who had more music and humor in him and a flintier, more compact diction than any poet who's had to follow him out into the woods and fields and wilds of New England. But away from the Cape, I can't help it. Away from the Cape, I can't make out what tunes she's playing, I don't get her jokes, her diction lax, meandering with her thoughts.
But when I'm on the Cape...
When I'm on the Cape, and I'm on on the Cape now, as you've probably guessed, her work sings and laughs and gets right to the point. When I'm on the Cape, what was boring and obvious back home, is a necessary exactness.
Poets and writers are often praised for their abilities to give readers a sense of place and tell how the weather was. Oliver's poems seem to me to be pieces of the place, part of the weather.
Taking her poems off the Cape to read them leaves most of what makes them poetry behind.
It's the difference between looking at a scallop shell from last summer on your dresser as you reach for your keys and picking a shell up out of the surf this instant.j
Away from the Cape she's that bore at the zoo. Down here, she's a gracious hostess showing you around her garden and whatever flower or plant or bird visiting the feeder she points out becomes wonderful and new because it's filled with her excitement and her affection for it. The fireflies and somehow that makes their blinking like that amazing, and it's cheering and reassuring to know that that flower you thought was called a gladiola is in fact a gladiola.
Yesterday morning I walked down to the pond at the end of the street and saw three ospreys---marsh hawks---swooping across the water, shopping for breakfast. And one picked out something good or thought so. It dropped straight down from thirty feet or more up, a belly flop more than a dive, throwing up a circular wave of glassy water, then it rose and shot away and inland so fast that I couldn't see what it had caught in its talons. And this is what Mary Oliver had to say about that, having written about what I was looking at years ago as if she was already standing right there next to me to point it :
In the morning they glide
just above the rough plush
of the marshlands,
as though on leashes,
long-tailed and with
tipped upward, like
dark Vs; then they suddenly fall
in response to their wish,
which is always the same---
to succeed again and again.
There were crows in the pines too and one ruffled and damp looking one alone on a telephone wire, smoothing its own feathers with its beak but taking breaks from its grooming to talk to its friends in the trees, and they shouted back:
...one hungry, blunt voice, echoing together.
Oliver was right there again. That's exactly how those rude, clever, greedy, demanding birds sound, hungry and blunt.
New York Times had a nice article on Oliver and her poetry a week or so ago. Headline calls her the Bard of Provincetown, but Provincetown proper doesn't feature in many of her poems, she's not a chronicler of village life, and the reporter, Mary Duenwald, makes the case that Oliver's really the bard of small patch of woods outside of town that surrounds Blackwater Pond in an area called the Provincelands. Duenwald writes:
This is not the Cape Cod of beaches and sailboats, shops and art galleries, but rather a small, shady and cool wilderness quietly teeming with life — a geological and biological wonder that stands in relative obscurity on the Cape.
That's the Cape Cod I come down here to see. Not that I don't go to the beach and ignore the sailboats and shops and galleries, although I am more interested in the people in them than in what's for sale. But when I'm here I spend more looking down and looking up and looking in close than I do just looking around at how pretty the place is. There's no forgetting the ocean when you're here, but I don't spend much time staring thoughtfully out to sea. "Surely the sea is the most beautiful fact in our universe," Oliver has noted, "But you won't find a fisherman who will say so." Or a Mannion. I take the ocean's expanse and depth for granted. It's what's crawling or swimming along in its shadows that fascinates me. We're about to head off to the beach but I'm not in the mood to swim. I'm going hunting for pipefish with Mary Oliver:
In the greenI waded, I reached
and purple weeds
called Zoestra, loosely
swinging in the shallows,
in that most human
of gestures---to find, to see,
to hold whatever it is
and what came up wasn't much
but it glittered
it had eyes, and a body like a wand,
it had pouting lips.
all of it, than any of my fingers,
away from my strangeness,
it wanted to go back
into that waving forest...