Tuesday, February 13, 2007



Thirst by Mary Oliver
(Beacon Press, Boston, 2006)

[Note: all references are to the book Thirst unless otherwise cited.]


               God, how did it ever come to you to invent time (P. 18)


This is a slender book containing forty-three new poems. Thirst is a collection in which I fall in love with lines rather than with whole poems as I have usually done with Oliver's work. The central theme is Mary Oliver’s loss of her partner of more than forty years, Molly Malone Cook. The book attests to the strength of what she lost: a sweet deep shared life, which was fine in its details and in its arc.

This poet’s unified field has always been the world. Her earliest book was No Voyage(Houghton-Mifflin Company, Boston, 1965). Before taking a voyage one must learn grief. ”Now of all voyagers I remember, who among them / Did not board ship with grief amount their maps?” (p. 1, No Voyage) In an earlier poem, the poet lies on a cot before a window “While the birds in the trees sing of the circle of time.”

They are what saves the world; who choose to grow
Thin to a starting point beyond this squalor.
(On Winters Margin, p. 64, No Voyage)


Tomorrow I will prove
How towers and rivers and ride its actual space.
               This day I stand in leaves that blow like the last
               Edge of the easy dream; and pray for grace.
(P. 56 NV “A House in London”)

Though she goes “to see the great ships ride from harbor. . .Here or nowhere [she] will make peace with the fact.” In Thirst she makes peace with one of life’s hardest facts: death. Here she struggles to travel beyond Molly’s death which leaves her opening boxes of darkness, an ironic gift in a home still filled with light? (“The Uses of Sorrow” “Someone I loved once gave me / a box full of darkness. (p. 52)

Yeats knew that “man is in love and loves what vanishes: what more is there to say?” Oliver turns elegy into moments into celebration. Thirst contains “a long conversation” with God. Memories of the beach in Provincetown, of the dogs they loved—earth-ecstasy, butter-and-egg-daises: all mark this late book of Oliver’s as they have left their signatures upon her previous work. Anew direction, the challenge to truly attain faith, marks Thirst as different from her previous books of poems.

Love of the physical, tangible world which has been her watermark for over forty years is here while she is challenged to live “Past the hour and the bell,” but she has never been “a quick scholar” (echoing Dickinson.). She dwells—her wish is to dwell “In the household of God                She yearns toward “the physicality of the religious poets” a thirst unstanchable for the lost beloved, the first step of a lifelong journey where vivid specifics of the shared life such as “Butter-and-eggs” daises vivify life.

In the “Epilogue” to Thirst, Oliver voices a psalm:

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God
has given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour and the bell.”

The old pond, Blackwater Pond, is there but she is in process of learning the difficult, beautiful lessons God has set us without knowing where she will be sent yet. With these prayers she is slowly learning the thirst which is the metaphor, symbol of the volume.

“Lesson” is a recurring word mirrored by the old-fashioned term “lectionary.” The volume his set both in a naturalistic and biblical context which separates it from the devotional feeling of the early books as the poet struggle to enter more formal religion. She struggles. She does not arrive.

We are in a “school,” over and over again learning a “lesson.” Even the dog Percy is admonished:

Run, run, Percy.
This is our school.
(p. 60)

Like Emerson, she sees God ‘s body everywhere in the most directly Biblical poem “On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate” (Psalm 145)

All day up and down the shore the
fine points of the waves keep on
tapping whatever is there
(p. 55)

Like Wordsworth, Emerson has been a forbear with profound influence upon Oliver who has written an essay in Long Life, “Emerson: An Introduction.” In this she claims him to be enormously spontaneous. “What we bring forth, he has taught me as deeply as any writer could, is predictable” (p. 51, Long Life) And what is that? To have “Confidence. Confidence in what? “in the laws of mortals as of botany. I believe that justice produces justice, and injustice injustice,” Oliver quotes Emerson (Ibid.) In his first essay, “Nature,” Oliver states he taught us “this web of God”, namely everything “that is not the mind uttering words.” (Ibid, p. 46.) In Thirst, the poet is caught in this web of God, the mind attempting to utter words. She attempts formalized religion. Her setting of church as school occurs as often as nature. Her thrust is devotional, her ambience Provincetown, and the ocean.

“Tapping” is an arresting word conjuring an image of waves as typewriter spelling out “whatever is there: scatter of broken / clams, empty jingles, old;’/ oyster shells thick and castellated” She compares the flotsam and jetsam of short to “This sweetest trash rolling / like the arms of babies through the / swash—in a feathered dash . . .” Again, the ocean is spelling out mysteries. She asks of God, and the ocean, “how many mysteries have you seen in your / lifetime? and compiling a catalogue concludes that God’s body is “everywhere and everything; ashore and the vast / fields of water.” (p. 57.) She segues to the recurrent plea in Thirst “I would be good” upright, good. But to what end? “To be shining not sinful, not wringing out of the hours . . .heaviness, ashes.”” To what goal? Not to enter “Hope of heaven” but “the other kingdom: grace and imagination.” (Ibid.)

She observes grace incarnate in a man, unnamed, likely a neighbor “Christ’s ambassador”’ with resolute, not fooled kindness. (p.58) He has soldiered for God, rising out / under the storm clouds, against the world’s pride and unkindness / with both unassailable sweetness, and consoling word.” (p. 558.) In this poem the difficult task she has set herself--to love the world, again reminiscent in the poet assuming role of scholar of Dickinson--her stark opening declaration in “messenger” is “My work is loving the world; here, she acquits herself with honor.

Other poems here are less successful in conveying the poet’s struggle and we are left with exhortations, sayings which are too abstract to move.

Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned—
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.
(P.63 “In the Storm”)

The poem’s opening stuns us with its idiosyncratic use of the verb “shrug”:

Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
it was snowing
(p. 62)

If Thirst generates a love for lines rather than full poems, this could be because the grief has not ripened yet and the poems are premature. The volume creates a thirst in me, which is not quenched, although the eye of the poet when dealing with specifics is ravished. Both ravished and raptor of the world.

The grass never sleeps.
or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
(p. 45 “Gethsemane.”)

Nor does the poet’s grief sleep. That is Oliver’s Gethsemane, the insomnia of grief. Such lines as “Jesus said, wait with me. (Ibid.) And maybe the stars did,” and the extraordinary lines following drive home the love for the world which the poet struggles step-by-step to regain:
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

A reader once advised me not to write homilies. I had a temptation to underline a metaphysical vision with a moral tag: it invariably failed.

In this book, which is likely to be transitional, a bridge from grief to resolution--Oliver dwells “in the city called Wait” (p. 48 “Logan International.”) Where we wait is in a “broken world” (49.0). What we wait for is uncertain. Devotion drives her voice to speak (p. 37 Praying.”) "spurred by a blue iris or “weeds in a vacant lot, or a few / small stones.” The necessity is to pay attention. (37).

I looked for water words in Thirst and found “fish”, “ocean”, and “waters”. I searched for words related to religion and came up with “Jesus”, “Priest”, “ Gospel”, and “Lectionary.” But there was no stanching the thirst at root of these poems. Grief is part and parcel of living as it is of the language, which portrays life. She is at her best in such poems as “Making the House Ready for the Lord” where she has “swept” and “Washed” but no amount of householding nor elbow grease can bring up the lost shine.” Echoing Robert Frost in “A Boy’s Will,” she enjoins at the end of this poem “Come in, Come in.” (p. 13) In “The Winter Wood Arrives,” Oliver struggles to “rise from morning prayers, / [to remember] love, that leaves yet never leaves,” an inspired pun on autumn leaves. She struggles with winter wood, having recently been delivered, moving as though with the body of her beloved to be burned at a funeral pyre, with logs “bundle by bundle, / to be burned.”(p. 15)

Thirsting drives her to “look most deeply into His words. Clouds are not only vapor . . .silky sacks of nourishing rain. The pear orchard is not only profit but a paradise of light.” (p. 7 “Musical Notation: I) In this Provincetown, oceany world, still she is parched. There is providence in Provincetown but also the boxfuls of darkness, gifts.

In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famed “Divinity School Address” first published in Boston, in 1831, he looks for “the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws [The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures’ immortal sentences] “that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their enduring complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul.” (p. 117, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Self-Reliance and Other Essays, Dover Thrift Edition, 1993.) The Bostonian minister, like Oliver, sought the divine reflected in the universe. He envisioned the “transparent eyeball.” Oliver, also a Massachusetts poet, sees the labor of love in her opening statement to Thirst: “My work is loving the world.” “Messenger” (p.1) She has accomplished in part this work at least as we hear her say at the service of her beloved: “(Lord, see how well I have done.)” Tellingly, she puts this statement in parentheses. Emerson’s opening words to his “Divinity School Address” are similar to Oliver’s. Emerson writes “In this refulgent summer it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life.” (p. 103). Oliver keeps her heart, her eye, open. She refuses to let grief milk it over like a cataract over an eyeball. She consistently vows to count her blessings. Nonetheless, “Messenger” which first appeared in Nature and Spirituality opens a book essentially an elegy where the poet constantly admonishes herself, as though spiritually rapping herself across the wrists, too. Keep her mind on the most imperative thing: her work. In old boots and a “coat torn” the poet “no longer young, and still not half-perfect.” (p. 1.) She is a perpetual learner, like Dickinson although quite different in tone. Her imperative is her work “which is mostly standing still, and learning to be astonished.” (Ibid.) There is no death, no grief, from which the will to pay attention and be amazed will save us. But it is by small steps. It is almost arbitrary, not quite: “”I open the book / which the strange, difficult, beautiful church / has given me. To Matthew. Anywhere.” (”After Her Death,” p.16.) Like the Bostonian minister, the church is her schoolroom. There is an agenda--going to church, walking the beach, playing with Percy the dog—but does it work? She will answer the phone, pay the bills, and do the laundry reciting her chores as though the good child to the parent. But at the end of it all her must say the beloved name over and over. “Percy (IV)” (p. 17.)

Thirst is a book of elegies addressed to a woman. Yet, near the end Oliver addresses the traditional male God: Granted, it is an interpretation of Psalm 145.
                                             . . I am thinking
not of His thick wrists and His blue
shoulders but, still, of Him. Where, do you suppose, is His
pale and wonderful mind?”
(p.57 “On Thy Wondrous Works I will Meditate.”)

The poem concludes:

O Lord of melons, of mercy, though I am
not ready nor worthy, I am climbing toward you.

While astonishment is wakened by the phoebe and the delphinium, darkness comes when she is “Among the Trees \” where she “would almost say that they save [her] and daily.” (9?) “After Her Death” states “I am trying to find the lesson / for tomorrow. Matthew something.” In the framework of these Emersonian lessons, she hopes to find her salvation in “Which lectionary?” Isn’t it very much in the American grain to teach in poetry? The schoolroom, even if all nature, is for her as for Emerson the saving and difficult grace.

Mary Oliver is a poet who does not have to strive to be religious: she inherently, at core, is. Whether she grieves or not, she dwells in ‘A House of Light.” Listen to these two prose passages to catch a sense of the life she shared with Molly Malone Cook: the first is from the opening of the essay “Blue Pastures” the title poem of the book:

M. and I steered our wooden boat with the ratcheting motor to the breakwaters and a little ;beyond, threw out the anchor, and baited our hooks. All afternoon we drew in the trembling lines. . .As far as fishing went, we used the wrong bait and did not engage it to the hooks properly, we were in the wrong part of the harbor at the wrong time according to the tides, and so on.

W were rather glad. . . the hours passed pleasantly and we found that we were content to have wrested no leaping form from the water. . .the water was deep and luminous”
(p. 23 Blue pastures.) (Blue Pastures, Harcourt, Brace & Company,; 1995)

The second passage comes from the essay “Dust” in Long Life: Essays and other Writings (Da Capo Press, 2004):

It is five o’clock or maybe earlier on a winter morning when I come down the stairs. The sky is black, but not for long. I make coffee and walk form window to window, lifting the shades, watching the pink, tangerine, apricot, lavender light dart and sail along the eastern horizon, then climb like a mist and tremble there, on the inner curve of the darkness. The intimacy of the universe!
(p. 78 Blue Pastures)

The third quote, also from Long Life, is form the piece “Flow.” All three pieces suggest water, note.

We live, M. and I, about ten feet from the water. When there is a storm and the wind pushes toward us from the southeast we live about a foot from the waters. It sings all day long and all night as well, never the same music. . . Every day; my early morning walk along the water grants me a second waking

This enormity, this cauldron of changing greens and blues, is the great palace of the earth.
(P.? 3 Long Life)

Of course she thirsts: Molly has made the final voyage and the poet is left alone. Yet, this thirst was born with her when breathing began. She has the ocean, the ponds she has learned and loved, “Blackwater pond” “Round Pond” and the everpresent, symbolic “waters of the poor.” Even embracing, exalting this world, one feels an other world in waters where the cormorants dip for a while which nourishes her in these “beautiful, dark seas / they push through.” (p. 18 “Cormorants.” The poet too is struggling, pushing thru radiant but dark seas on this the first step signaling the initiation indo a far longer journey beginning with grief over the death of the beloved and ending--one knows not where, but in that light of the final poem “Thirst” (p. 69) where one walks out “to the pond and all the way God has / given us such beautiful lessons.” One may “stumble in recitation” but the hope is that the God who created the ironic equation of Time will at least give one ear. The recovery will not be a re-finding of the beloved. Could it be her revelation will yield something even more incandescent, more receiving than the forty-year passion in living shared with Molly Malone Cook? In love with what vanishes, what will be the later words one says? God has burdened and blessed us with time: our lives occur within a parenthesis. Things in this book are still very much seen “Through a glass darkly.” This is a book of survival. It has come to God to invent time: now we must make our lives in time: after loss, this means mustering bravery, magnetizing the light. We will make love our work, the love of living, which is far, more than just ghosting life in. With Oliver, we wait for the epiphany. Long ago, Oliver staked her claim as a visionary poet. It is a hard theme with which she has acquitted herself with honor. Now, Now, “past the hour and the bell” we watch and wait.


Lynn Strongin's new book of poems, Short Visiting Hours for Children: Rembrandt's Smock, is forthcoming from Plain View Press, Austin, Texas. This review is a chapter from Strongin’s book Returning the Light: Portraits of Hidden Faith in Fourteen Contemporary Poets which is now seeking a publisher. A full introduction to Lynn Strongin is available at her website: http://members.shaw.ca/stronginweb/index.html


At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Katrien Vander Straeten said...

I want to praise the reviewer for this piece. Oliver is a marvelous poet, and doing her justice in a review, is quite a task. Ms. Strongin succeeds. Her review is knowledgeable, thoughtful, and deeply felt. And it doesn't surprise me that she is herself a poet. I look forward to reading her forthcoming book.


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