Z.M. Jack


Mystical rather than conventionally religious, neither strictly devotional nor recognizably surrealist, Mary Oliver¹s is a problematic poetic. Nor, as concerns us here, is it ecstatic in the classical sense, the ecstatic moment defined when the poet either loses self, or, as the Greeks derived it, ex stasis, stands beside oneself. At best, and with its affinity for crescendo and cosmic consciousness, Mary Oliver¹s is an American ecstatic comparable to Whitman¹s. More ethereal, than latter-day Romanticism, and, at the same time more workmanlike and attentive to the incarnate world than Christian mystical poets, Oliver¹s work occupies a curious middle ground between Rumi¹s intoxicated Sufism, Emerson and Thoreau¹s Transcendentalism and Whitman¹s expansive populism.

Oliver¹s latest, The Leaf and the Cloud, begins with the following epigraph from John Rushkin¹s Modern Painters: ³Between the earth and the man arose the leaf. Between the heaven and man came the cloud. His life being partly as the falling leaf, and partly as the flying vapour.² The above passage hints at Oliver¹s daemonic consciousness, her ³little discussions with God² (³Work² 9).

³Flare,² the first of Leaf and Cloud¹s seven sections, begins in the Switzerland between warm sentimentality and cold observation. Feigning the confessional, (³My father/ was a demon of frustrated dreams/ was a breaker of trust²), the poem announces both its orthodoxy and its refusal: ³But I will not give them [mother, father] the kiss of complicity./ I will not give them the responsibility for my life.² In other words, the poems begins in opposition, in definitive anti-definition. ³Flare¹s² second gesture is to contemplate itself as a made object‹first as artifice and inanity, finally as ³dark and nourishing bread.² It begins, ³Welcome to the silly, comforting poem,² before dismantling readerly expectations: ³It [the poem] is not the sunrise, which is a red rinse, which is flaring all over the eastern sky;/ it is not the rain falling out of the purse of God² (1). The poem speaks out of both sides of its mouth, employing metaphor at the same time it denies it.

While the half grounded poet-speaker in Leaf and Cloud is neither the ³foamy mouthed, eye-rolling² (Hoagland 143) ecstatic typically conjured nor the ³Bacchic maiden² Socrates describes, there is a slipperiness, a doublespeak that betrays a kind of otherworldliness or precociousness in Oliver¹s oeuvre. In her Pulitzer Prize winning collection, American Primitive (1983), Oliver writes, ³All my life I was a bride married to amazement² (³When Death Comes²). There is a sense of a lived life behind these poems, in all that long life implies‹not solely the bride¹s innocence, but also, and principally, the widow¹s savvy.

And yet it¹s wrong to say that Leaf and Cloud amounts, instead, to warmed-over, Romanticism, as Phoebe Pettingell suggests of Winter Hours (1999). There exists in the best of Oliver a metaphysical, ontological madness, a bungee jumping not evidenced in Wordsworth as much as in Rumi. Compare Rumi¹s: ³There¹s a strange frenzy in my head,/ of birds flying/ each particle circulating on its own./ Is the one I love everywhere?² (³A Community of the Spirit²) to Oliver¹s work in ³Gravel²: ³It is our nature not only to see/ that the world is beautiful// but to stand in the dark, under the stars,/ or at noon, in the rainfall of light,// frenzied/ wringing our hands,/ half mad, saying over and over: what does it mean, that the world is beautiful‹ what does it mean?²

While the objective of the Sufists, the whirling dervishes, is ³utter humility and abandonment of self² (Helminski), elsewhere referred to as ³a madness that opposes one¹s apparent self-interest² the hyper-aware poet-speaker in ³Work.² Leaf and Cloud¹s second section, makes a ³study of the difference between water and stone,² employing pseudo scientific rationalism to ³stare at the world; push the grass aside and stare at the world.² To borrow Auden¹s distinction, Oliver¹s energy is as much the world-ordering, world-inventorying Prospero¹s as it is Caliban¹s monstrous naivete. Oliver writes ³We make books of them, out of hesitations and grammar. We are slow and choosy. This is the world² (³Work² 12).

Leaf and Cloud stakes out a middle ground between inchoate, Dionysian madness and John Muir-esque fieldwork. To quote ³Riprap: ³In my mind, the arguers never stop‹/ the skeptic and the amazed‹/ the general and the particular in their uneasy relationship² (25,6). Critics have long noted the reconciliation of opposites in Oliver¹s poetry, its ³stark choices² counterpointed by its ³delicate balance² (Burton-Douglas). Vicki Graham argues that Oliver¹s poems ³suggest that we need language and self-consciousness in order to experience stepping outside of language and the self.² Paradox-granted, Graham continues, ³For Oliver . . . becoming another is a willed artistic act that carries her across boundaries that she nonetheless remains conscious of.² Oliver¹s own conception of her work is both mystical and practical; she describes her project as ³to illustrate idea, that sacred smoke above the fire of instance² (Oliver qtd. in Griffith). Oliver poses the question: ³If beauty in general and the beautiful poem in particular does not mean something‹if it does not charge us with a difficult and ennobling task‹then what can beauty be after all but utter madness.²

The preacherly religiosity of Oliver¹s didactic moments (there are many) further evidences an ecstaticism separate from Europe¹s Christian Mysticism or the Middle East¹s Sufism‹indeed separate from the strain of American Ecstaticism poet-critic Tony Hoagland isolates in the work of Dean Young, Tess Gallagher and Susan Mitchell. By comparison, Oliver¹s world seems peculiarly anachronistic, devoid of the prescribed socio-pscychological tautness. The effect of her homespun aphorisms, (Scatter your flowers over the graves and walk away/ Be good natured and untidy in your exuberance.// In the glare of the mind, be modest./ And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling² (6)), cannot help but sound like a Unitarian hymnal or a slightly less folksy Poor Richard¹s Almanac‹octaves removed from the ³chord of postmodern vertigo² (Hoagland 144) Mitchell strikes.
While Douglas Burton-Christie, writing for Cross Currents, praises Oliver for daring to question our ability to love the world, William Logan lambastes the author for her ³holier than thou² ethos. In fact, Logan wants more American in Oliver¹s American ecstatic, asserting ³Oliver¹s poetry is allergic to the interesting world² and demanding ³some sign of six millennia of culture‹a fork, say, or a cell phone.² Logan imagines Oliver¹s implicit authorial stance to be, ³ŒI love nature to death, why don¹t you, you pitiful stay-at-home reader of poetry, you?¹²

Logan¹s gripe is important; how much of Mary Oliver is for real, and how much is ³self-dramatizing² persona? Is Oliver¹s work, praised by Robert Hosmer in Southern Review for its ³Zen-like clarity,² actually a pose? Logan thinks so, and pulls no punches. He writes, ³[S]ometimes language itself is a dishonesty, its responses hardened to cliche. Cliches aren¹t a neural form of truth; they¹re truth frozen into fraud.² Ecstatic expression, Logan rightly points out, quickly faces its own exhaustion, replaced by, and complicit in, Oliver¹s recent work, where, he claims, epiphanies come ³thick and fast² and exaltations appear ³strictly routine.² Drawing ever nearer to a real or imagined death in the poem¹s penultimate section, Oliver¹s poet-speaker, (³a woman sixty-years old and glory is my work² (³Gravel² 10)) is neither anonymous nor purely philanthropic, ending the section with the self-dramatizing: ³Think of me when you see the evening star./ Think of me when you see the wren. . . // Remember me I am the one who told you he sings for happiness² (52). Aligned in ³Evening Star,² the poem¹s final section, with the doubters ³running over the hot fields/ crying out for faith, looking for it in the high places and the low places,/ looking for it everywhere² (50), the poet-speaker is, finally, humbled, while in earlier sections she is more daemonic, more willful provacateur, sometime seductress. She wonders how she can best pleasure her audience ³tell me: what will engage you? What will open the dark fields of your mind/ like a lover at first touching² (5).

Oliver¹s poet-speaker remains largely unabashed about these inconsistencies of tone and ethos. In her own way, she presents us with an unreliable narrator, one given as much to ecstatic pronouncement as evangelical overstatement, the poet registering honestly her confusion (³I¹m never sure/ which part of this dream is me/ and which the part is the rest of the world² (Riprap 27)), grasping at language as an alternative to silence. She insists ³the nature of man is not the nature of silence² and further: ³[w]ords are thunders of the mind. Words are the refinement of the flesh² (³Work 12²). While the Sufi mystics seek a condition of silence, Oliver waxes hyperverbal when faced with her own long silence, the waited-for transcendence via death: ³[w]hen death/ carts me off to the bottomlands,/ when I begin the long work of rising² (³Gravel² 57). Unlike Dickinson, who graciously puts aside her ³labor and leisure² for Death¹s running meter, Oliver grows chatty, even melodramatic in her litany of goodbyes: ³Goodbye to the swaying trees,/ Goodbye to the black triangles of the winter sea/ Goodbye to the oranges, the prick of their fragrance² (41).

The American ecstatic, which Leaf and Cloud elaborates, exists between its own manufactured polemics (work/play, desire/restraint, nature/anti-nature), refusing to estrange the self from self-observed phenomena. Though one suspects Oliver would be reluctant to admit it, more likely, in fact, to agree with Vicki Graham¹s assertion that she seeks ³dissolution into the natural world²‹Leaf and Cloud is far too self-conscious to attain the status of Emerson¹s transparent eyeball. And though it would be a generalization to claim that Oliver¹s anxious verbosity in Leaf and Cloud characterizes American speech, it¹s nonetheless clear that, increasingly, the project of contemporary American poets is to challenge the limits of language, ecstatic or no‹recalling ³Flare¹s² aphoristic refrain: ³the poem is not the world.² Oliver¹s speaker tiptoes the edge of the inexpressible, ³O what is beauty/ that I should be up at/ four A.M. trying to arrange this thick song . . . // O what is beauty/ that I feel it to be so hot-blooded and suggestive,/ so filled with imperative² (³Riprap² 26). Oliver enjoys a position between faith and inquiry, sincerity and irony, the genuine and the artificed. Always, language is the site of slippage, as it is for Leaf and Cloud¹s poet-speaker, who arrives at her desk to begin the ³real work² of listening and looking, only to decide ³Maybe the world, without us,/ is the real poem² (³The Book of Time² 17).

Emphatically human but discrete in its personal revelations, insistent in seeking edification in the natural world, Oliver¹s work is both spacious and reserved‹ prototypically American. In its straightforward spirit of religious inquiry, The Leaf and the Cloud sounds a familiar cultural chord: ³And certainly and easily I can see/ how God might be one rose bud,/ one white feather in the heron¹s enormous, slowly opening wing.// It¹s after that/ it gets difficult² (³Evening Star² 49). ³Evening Star, ² the poem¹s seventh and final section, implies both annunciation and ravishment:

allelujah alleluiah
the red tongues of the white swans
shine out of their black beaks
as they shout
as their wings rise and fall
rise and fall
oh rise and fall. (53)

The new book wishes hard for transcendence, for the enveloping ecstatic as it unfolds in ³Rhapsody²: ³If you are in the garden, I will dress myself in leaves./ If you are in the sea I will slide into that/ smooth blue nest, I will talk fish, I will adore salt² (36). What The Leaf and the Cloud wants, the note on which it ends, is nothing less than Yeats asks of Leda: ³So mastered by the brute blood of the air,/ Did she put on his knowledge with his power/ Before the indifferent beak could let her drop.²
In The Leaf and the Cloud, Mary Oliver serves notice: ³Though I am not ready, I am simmering.²

ZM Jack's

poetry reviews and interviews have appeared in the Black Warrior Review, and have aired on Alabama Public Radio. His poems have won the Prentice Hall Prize, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and have appeared most recently in the New Orleans Review and Zone 3. He is currently Assistant Professor of English at Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tennessee.


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