I can’t read Mary Oliver’s poetry (which I have been doing a lot lately), without considering her process. Not knowing anything else, I imagined long walks and lots of quiet pondering. Early mornings. But also late nights afterwards. At a desk. With a warm lamp. Writing, drifting, thinking. I imagined a dog with her, maybe, on these walks or by the fire. Sometimes. Lots of quiet. Upstream, a collection of her essays, filled in some, but not all, of the blanks.
I love Oliver for her poetry, but I read a lot more prose these days. More non-fiction than I ever would have thought when I was younger. It makes me feel old reading essay collections, like such an adult. But I like what I like. What can I say?
Reading Oliver’s essays feels like cheating, though. They are not just completely unlike her poetry. Where her poetry leaves much to the imagination, her essays paint a fuller picture, though they are no less lovely. They feel much more like art than we’re led to believe.
Her first essay, “Upstream,” talks about her childhood and getting “lost” and a writer’s beginning that was a joy to read about, though not surprising, reading her work now. She describes becoming “lost” as a child (not literally lost at all, just wandering in nature, literally upstream), and the desire to be lost again, coming over her “like a vapor.” Yes! And how adulthood claimed her, like so many coats. Also yes!
From her essay “Staying Alive,” this quote:
I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.
I could carve this on my tombstone. But would need to start writing first, to make it truthful. Though I imagine the downside of lying matters very little once you’re dead.
Another quote from that essay: “You must never stop being whimsical.” I’m trying!
In “Of Power and Time,” she offers that “Creative work needs solitude…Privacy, then. A place apart–to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.” Doesn’t it sound lovely? And later, “I am, myself, three selves at least.” Me too! I didn’t follow with all her personal selves, but have long been aware of the concept of selves, and the various competing selves within myself. So many versions of me.
In the transition to Section Three, a poem at last (I knew she couldn’t resist). I won’t repeat the whole thing here, but it starts out: “Wherever I’ve lived my room and soon/the entire house is filled with books.” Ain’t that the truth? We are who we are, we book lovers. The rest of the world will just have to deal with it.
An Emerson quote: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Reminds me of What’s Up, Doc? But an excellent concept nonetheless.
From her essay on Edgar Allen Poe: “A normal life includes the occasional black mood.” Indeed.
Also from the Poe essay, and I loved this:
But literature, the best of it, does not aim to be literature. It wants and strives, beyond that artifact part of itself, to be a true part of itself, to be a part of the composite human record–that is, not words but a reality.
So many great little gems, in the middle of an essay from which you could not see such a thoughtful non-sequitur coming.
Also from that essay: “In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions.” I do love both these things, and consider them gifts, I suppose, but I’m still pondering the truth of the statement.
My favorite essay of the whole collection, and I’m not fully sure why, was “Owls.” Oh, I adored it. So gorgeous, so violent, so alive and true. It made me desperate to see as she sees, think as she things, write as she writes. Like all my favorite authors, she wrote it exactly as I imagined it, though more eloquently. Such a good essay!
Her statement from “Winter Hours,” in which she proclaims: “I’ve never been to Rome.” (before you go feeling too sorry for her, she goes on to point out that she has been to England, the “Far East,” Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Indonesia. So it’s not like she’s never been anywhere. Though not to go to Rome is a crime and a travesty. And having been to Rome, not still being there feels criminal as well).
At the end of that same essay, she offers the very insightful paragraph that, for me, sums up so much of what I thought I knew about her from her poetry:
I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.
That is truly how she writes her poetry. I loved this collection of essays. I hope she writes another, and another. Perfection!