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On Mary Oliver and Flying Close to the Sun

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I used to teach Mary Oliver’s poems–a slim volume, Dream Work, so many years ago now that I don’t remember the exact course. What I do remember are the poems and the students’ responses to them. Those memories came to mind recently with the news of Oliver’s death, as did the image of Brueghel’s “The Fall of Icarus.”

Foolish Icarus does not listen to his father. His hubris pushes him to fly too close to the sun. His wings melt, and he plummets to his death.

Or is the story of Icarus quite different?

Brilliant Icarus follows his imagination and takes flight with the grace of an enormous Blue Heron. Maybe the narrative depends on the poet’s gender. Certainly, what Auden notices in “Musee des Beaux Arts,” in addition to the “dreadful martyrdom” of Icarus, is the conscious irony of Brueghel’s painterly composition: “how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster” of Icarus’ death. Everyone in the painting’s foreground is too intent on the mundane to notice the loss.

As for Oliver, have we actually noted her passing? Have we, as writers of prose and poetry, accounted for the weight of our collective loss? Of course, for a poet of her rank, a writer who earned the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, The New York Times ran an obituary [2], written by Margalit Fox, that respectfully navigates Oliver’s achievements, as well as the critical reception of her poems. “Her poems, which are built of unadorned language and accessible imagery, have a pedagogical, almost homiletic quality. It was this, combined with their relative brevity, that seemed to endear her work to a broad public…” writes Fox.

I thought about the young woman who approached me after class. We had been discussing “Rage,” the fifth poem in Dream Work. The student was weeping because Oliver had put into words the experience of incest–had given her access, a different path into the experience:

But you were also the red song

in the night,

stumbling through the house

to the child’s bed,

to the damp rose of her body,

leaving your bitter taste.

And forever those nights snarl

the delicate machinery of the days.

Is this the “pedagogical, almost homiletic quality” of Oliver’s poems? Oliver has taken on a subject that requires enormous courage and (psychic, physical) stamina to articulate, one that remains marginalized, maybe because it so often happens to little girls. She has also dared to articulate her rage, which is not an emotion generally allowed for women.

To be clear, I have no argument with Fox’s obituary of Oliver. In fact, I draw directly from Fox’s quotations of specific reviews and so remain much indebted to her. In fact, I see the obituary as a gift, an insight into what it is like for women writers to pursue doggedly the arc of their intellect and creativity, to fly as high as their talents take them. Fox’s description of the critical reception of Oliver’s poems brings into the foreground our very recent social history.

Think of Brueghel populating the foreground of his painting with, in Auden’s words, the “position” of human suffering: how “…even the dreadful martyrdom [of Icarus] must run its course / Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot / Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” Fox provides a list of some of those itchy behinds that produced the “mixed” reception of Oliver’s work, critics who “were put off by the surface simplicity of her poems and, in later years, by her populist reach.”

Specifically, Fox quotes James Dickey’s 1965 review of “No Voyage”: “[Oliver] is good, but predictably good.” She also quotes David Orr, who in 2011 described Oliver as a poet “about whose poetry one can only say that no animals appear to have been harmed in the making of it.” There is something about these comments that galls; that echoes Horace Walpole calling Mary Wollstonecraft a “hyena,” a creature then believed to change sex with every new moon, because she dared do a man’s job, writing. I have to wonder how these critics would have responded to the “Preface” to “Lyrical Ballads,” the poetic manifesto of Wordsworth and Coleridge, a call for poetry as “a selection of the language really spoken by men” (1802).

I recall my students, stunned by language that appears so simple but evokes a complex nexus of ideas about the intersection of self and world. I think about the story Oliver’s poems often tell about what it means to heal by passing through the wound; how the courage to do so heals ourselves and the world, one person at a time. Dream Work, like other collections of her poems, has a trajectory, a plot that maps a heroic journey–both internal (through the wound) and external (through the mutilated world). Take a look at the claim Oliver makes in “Dogfish,” the first poem in Dream Work:

Mostly, I want to be kind.

And nobody, of course, is kind,

or mean,

for a simple reason.

And nobody gets out of it, having to

swim through the fires to stay in

this world.

As a poet Oliver does exactly that: “stay in / this world” despite its complexities, its demand to “swim through the fires.” Here is Icarus the Romantic hero who follows his imagination and takes flight against all odds. Oliver is, after all, part of a much longer Romantic tradition (British and American) of Nature poets. The “mixed” reviews point to an exclusion of her position in poetic history and a refusal to accept her focus, her ken as a writer.

Before Oliver locates home in the very last poem in Dream Work, she arrives in Loxahatchie, Florida, and experiences the sense of being both as ancient as the waters and as new as an infant. In “At Loxahatchie” time collapses. The nameless flowers and shrubs around her call for her birth and she knows

whatever my place in this garden

it was not to be what I had always been—

the gardener.

Everywhere the reptiles thrashed

while birds exploded into heavenly

hymns of rough songs and the vultures

drifted like black angels and clearly nothing

needed to be saved.

Despite the illusion of absolute control associated with toxic masculinity, what is heroic and powerful here is defined as a relinquishment of control, a sense of a greater wisdom that resides outside of ourselves.

Dream Work was published in 1986. By the time Oliver writes “When I Am Among the Trees,” which appears in Thirst in 2006, the trees “give off such hints of gladness”

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,

in which I have goodness, and discernment,

and never hurry through the world

but walk slowly, and bow often.

What an insurgent, revolutionary thought for our times: not Theodore Roosevelt’s imperial foreign policy, to which we remain enthralled: “speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far,” but “walk slowly,… bow often.”

How dare Oliver fly so close to the sun? How dare she insist on another, very different path through the world?

As writers, it matters that we shift our attention from foreground to background, that we note her passing, as well as her argument about our relationship to the world around us. The humility to bow and listen has become too rare.

Has the work of Mary Oliver touched you? Share your thoughts and/or your chosen outtakes of her writing in comments.

About Elizabeth Huergo [3]

Elizabeth Huergo [4] was born in Havana and immigrated to the United States at an early age as a political refugee. A published poet and story writer, she lives in Virginia. The Death of Fidel Perez is her first novel. You can learn more about Elizabeth on her website [4], and by following her on Twitter [5].

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