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Review: American Primitive, by Mary Oliver

A review of American Primitive by Mary Oliver

I can still remember the morning my friend gave me this book of poems. She handed it to me one autumn morning while I sat in her blue kitchen with French-press coffee and a burned bagel, the last one from the bag. She said something like, "These poems stay with you, become a part of you," and then she was out the door, off to her job as a social worker in a Portland treatment center. I still remember the light on that table, the steaming coffee, wisps of swirling condensed heat, the orange and gold dahlias near the window, each petal bright with October, the green stems oddly magnified by water and light. I opened the book which announced on its cover that the poet, Mary Oliver, had been a Pulitzer Prize winner the year before, maybe 1984, maybe just about the time some of you were having second and third birthdays. I'd been a serious reader and writer for years by that time, and a teacher too, so the fact that I'd never heard of this writer, her book, and its Pulitzer was one of those humbling moments when you understand that however intense and motivated you are in your worlds of work, you never know enough of all you need. There are always surprises; there is always a new gift, or as someone, maybe Mark Twain said, "Even the classics are new books to someone who hasn't yet read them."

In fact, I was on my way to a writing workshop that morning, was staying with my friend because her home in Portland was a generous and welcoming one, so here I was, al reaching the Northwest Writing Institute, and yet still in the dark about a writer who was to become one of my coaches, teachers, spiritual advisors.

By now, Oliver's work is famous; she has legions of followers. And the most recent collection, Felicity, is her twenty-fifth collection. She is so well known that corporate friends use her poems for inspiration, and, one of my all-time favorite poems could probably be quoted by CEO's as well as creative writing students everywhere.

Oliver writes always about the natural world — at least that's where she begins her writing. Her subjects are deer, trees with names, ponds, moles, raccoons, swans, roses, the moon. In fact, as I write this list of thematics I realize that poets everywhere, from the fifth century Heian court of Japan forward, have written about these natural objects.

Of course, it's what a writer does with these objects that count — the particular grace and attention and skill that each writer brings to seeing that count for a poem's or poet's fan club. So you can get a sense of this poet's grace, here are some poem titles from American Primitive: Rain In Ohio, Vultures, Lightning, White Night, Happiness.

One poem I read that Saturday morning before driving over to campus, and one which has become almost stigmatized by fame, is titled Wild Geese. The title alone places me in the poet's hands. At night I hear their calls from the valley flyway that I live beneath; during the days they settle in the grass stubble of the fields near the river. Migrating geese are a part of my life, signals and reminders about time, about home.

Here's how the poem begins: You do not have to be good.

Think about that for a minute; think about that means to a Catholic raised on sin and redemption, who was the model "good girl" whose parents didn't have to tell her what was expected because she already had it figured and was doing it. And then the next lines:

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

And then, as though in blessing:

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves.

Only, she says, you only have to allow! What a leap from the life I was trained into, what a gigantic falling forward is required for this only.  Still it is the only kind of only I'd be willing to bet my life on!

So, I don't want to go any further with my response to the astounding poem; Id rather just give it to you — a little gift about what is required to be the writer you're intent on becoming, and a few words from another writer about what is necessary, whoever you are, no matter how lonely.  And the wild geese, you're wondering. Well, they eventually show up, right near the conclusion, a signal for the passing of time and home, just as I said.