In California, you know when you’re burning. The brightness hurts, and when you close your eyes, you see red. The cliffs are high and jagged, the ocean smashes the shoreline, and landslides really can bring you down. There you are dwarfed and powerless. All it takes is a five-minute drive down 101 or a glimpse of Mount Shasta to shatter what has become, since I’ve moved to the East Coast, my new disregard for nature, an indifference that my family places somewhere on the outer reaches of the autism spectrum. I’m chastised when I don’t pull over to look at the ocean view or when I fail to incessantly praise the virtues of Indian summer. What’s the matter with you? LOOK. It’s beautiful! Refusing to acknowledge the immensity of your surroundings in California amounts to blasphemy, and don’t think there aren’t higher powers waiting to punish you. There are earthquakes; and mudslides; and for about three months of the year, entire regions of the state threaten to spontaneously combust. You wouldn’t dare sleep naked in California—you might need to run outside in the middle of the night, awakened to a rattling house and a mile-deep fissure in your front lawn.
But I’ve learned that what the East Coast lacks in menacing spectacle it makes up for in a sort of scaled-down obedience. East Coast nature yields to us. With its lapping, Amagansett waves and sweet sugar maples, the wild here, such as it is, seems to be ours for the sculpting. Perceiving nature’s rhythms feels less daunting, and our observations can be quieter, more microscopic. There are no incisor-like mountains or blazing forest fires to blast your sense of self. It’s a place where a poetic feeling can be maintained in relative peace, where the flora, fauna, and mild geology make space for introspective rumination and a notion of society. You can nurture a private sense of romance. The East Coast does not demand that you bow down before it in awe, nor does it require constant, humble apology for being tiny and human. You can be surrounded by the quaint prettiness of nature, not terrorized by its beauty as you are in California. And nowhere is the dosage of this sensation more concentrated than in the poems of Mary Oliver.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning Mary Oliver has lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts (a tiny village on the tip of a tiny cape on the edge of a tiny state), since the 1960s. She sets most of her poems in the wooded, pond-studded acres that surround her house. People love these poems. The most recent poetry best-seller list leads with Swan, Oliver’s latest collection, published by Beacon in September 2010. The list includes seven other titles by Oliver, and this is not atypical. Week in and week out, multiple Mary Oliver books grace this list. It’s not just that she’s prolific, though she is (she has published 26 poetry collections to date, along with three books of nonfiction). Her verse is easy to digest, smooth and slightly sweet like pap. Mary Oliver’s poetry really sounds like poetry.Her images (branches, stones, sheets of clouds); line breaks (“the timeless castles / of emerald eddies”); and preoccupation with rural quietness (“I thought the earth / remembered me, she / took me back so tenderly, arranging / her dark skirts, her pockets / full of lichens and seeds.”) all confirm our earliest and least nuanced conception of verse. Even the most dunderheaded among us can read Oliver’s work and recognize that THIS IS POETRY.
Her corpus is deceptively elementary, though; it’s easy to be fooled by her frequent one-word titles—“Egrets,” “Dogfish,” “Daisies”—into thinking they are simply descriptive slabs. As a layman reading poetry, it’s tempting to be blinded by the more immediately visible parts of speech: the monolithic nouns, the dynamic verbs, the charismatic adjectives. Mousier ones—pronouns, prepositions, particles—go ignored. In “Cold Poem,” for instance, from her 1983 collection American Primitive, overlooking the “we”s and the “our”s, of which there are many, is almost irresistible. One is tempted instead to luxuriate in the broader strokes and be seduced by the wholesome imagery: “I think of summer with its luminous fruit, / blossoms rounding to berries, leaves, / handfuls of grain.” There’s a mental manipulation to Oliver’s rhapsody, a mesmeric quality, as though by conjuring these organic elements, she leaves her readers vulnerable to hypnotic suggestion. Do you feel relaxed? Are you ready for nature? But you miss a lot by allowing the large language to overshadow the more muted connective tissue. Paying such crude attention will not grant you the fortifying effects Oliver has to offer. It would be like receiving a souvenir postcard in the mail, staring at it, and appreciating the picturesque photograph, but never bothering to read the note or look at the return address, which of course is the entire point. And in Mary Oliver’s work, each lovely vista has a sender; it is signed. Nature, she seems to be saying, is a place for people.
Our clichéd image of the artist—solitary, mercurial, all-feeling—becomes even more exaggerated when we imagine the life of the poet in particular. Poets might write each other letters—inky loops on parchment, a blotter always nearby—but in their daily wanderings, they are alone: scribbling in notebooks, peering across moors, feeding ducks, mooning someplace. Company, we presume, would distract them from the hidden patterns of the world to which only they are attuned. Virginia Woolf once described herself as “a porous vessel afloat on a sensation; a sensitive plate exposed to invisible rays.” This is how we think of the poet: noiseless, still, and absorbent. It’s comforting to think of them out there, monastic and alone, reactive to the minute stimuli we so often ignore.
But this speculative projection can lead us astray; it can prevent honest, critical reading of the actual work of these normal humans we treat like shamans.And the poems of Mary Oliver are not examples of solitude, as they might at first seem, but rather artifacts from a shared world. One of Oliver’s most famous poems, “Wild Geese,” from her 1986 collection Dream Work, is flagrant about this; it’s written in the second person and ends with an affirmation:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Or her poem “Breakage,” which begins with a lonely “I” naming the separate pieces of a landscape but then switches to second person with the hope of connecting, once again, to the “family of things”:
I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It's like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
Besides recounting dreams, one of the most tiresome tics is the insistence upon taking snapshots of nature: drugstore-developed photos of sunsets, iPhone pictures of shining lakes. No friends or loved ones ever want to see them, and trick yourself all you want, but you’re never going to successfully evoke that blissful vacation. By misdirecting our attention away from Mary Oliver’s pronouns, prepositions, and particles—and toward her geologic features and dewy patinas—we can be wrongfully convinced that her project bears resemblance to these uninspired, unpopulated, literally uncivilized photographs. But her poems aren’t snapshots of nature. She observes conscious life, even beacons it.
Whether the company Oliver invokes is biographical or not makes little difference. For 40 years, she lived with her partner and literary agent, Molly Malone Cook, who died in 2005. Oliver is famously private about her personal life, but we can assume that Cook was often her meditative walking companion and, once Cook’s health declined, the first audience for Oliver’s descriptions of tidal shifts, first fawns, and mockingbirds. This real-life rapport becomes less exclusivein the poems; Oliver cultivates an audience of intimates. Her readers feel as though there is a voice scoring their solitary lives. There’s a reason that the word “ramble” refers to both walking and talking. Engaging in the two activities at once is one of the most sacred things you can do with another person. Shared words are animated. There’s a nice symmetry to it, too: as you get further along in conversation, you get farther along physically. Oliver’s poetry socializes nature, and her verses chaperone the imaginative time we spend in it.
To be silenced by your surroundings can be detrimental to a life of letters and language. Unlike in California, nature in rural Massachusetts is not overwhelming but manageable and hospitable, less a theatrical backdrop and more of an interactive diorama with thickets to peer into and polished rocks to skip. It’s not muffling or intimidating; it inspires poetry that sounds like poetry: spellbound but not shushed, contemplative but not cowed. This is why we buy Mary Oliver collections—why we read and recommend certain of her poems. She accompanies us in our ramblings. We like our place in the world to be affirmed as comprehensible and describable, one where even the quietest of people don’t disappear. There’s a kind of self-centered harmony to the East Coast, and a distilled version of it exists in Mary Oliver’s poems. Her fans perhaps do not consciously like nature so much as they unconsciously like themselves.