And to kick things off, I thought I'd start with my 2013 review of Mary Oliver's 2006 poetry collection Thirst. Though I'm not sure I've ever met an Oliver collection I didn't like, this one is one of my favorites.
Hoping to make some posts soon in honor of Holy Week and the upcoming Easter season too.
Thirst by Mary Oliver: Standing Still and Learning to Be Astonished
(Originally published on Epinons.com in 2013; slightly revised 2017)
"All the quick notes/Mozart didn't have time to use/before he entered the cloud-boat/are falling now from the beaks/of the finches..."
Although I've known and enjoyed poems by Mary Oliver for over two decades, it was just recently that I read one of her poems online and found myself thinking "I really must read more." I went searching out the collection that included the particular poem that spoke to me so deeply, and I'm glad I did. Thirst, a collection of 43 poems published in 2006, was a lovely read -- and a book I know I will go back to.
Reviewing poetry often feels daunting. That’s especially true when reviewing poems by someone like Mary Oliver, whose style is so light and gracious that you get a sense of her words alighting on pages like birds perching on branches. Anything I can add in my prosaic review feels a little bit like snow weighing down the branch. There’s a temptation to just use the occasion of a review to point to the poems themselves. Reading poetry – rather than talking about it – will always be the best way to experience it.
But I really did love this book, so I will add my decorative frosting to the branch on which the poems perch.
The title "Thirst" comes from the final poem in the collection, a small prose poem which begins: “Another morning and I wake with thirst/for the goodness I do not have…” It’s a prayerful poem in which the poet confesses both her love for all the good she does have and her longing to know and love and experience more good. It includes one of my favorite lines in the whole collection, one directed Godward: “Love for the/earth and love for you are having such a/long conversation in my heart.” Yes.
That “long conversation in my heart” really describes the feel of this entire collection. In all 43 poems, we hear the poet’s voice – speaking to us, speaking to the world around her, speaking to the Lord – in a slow, measured, loving way. She observes and notes, wonders and questions, longs and celebrates, and each poem seems to provide a small epiphany, a lesson she has learned about herself in relationship to love.
The clarion call of the entire collection is the first poem “Messenger.” This was the bright-winged bird I found perched online, the poem that sung so clearly and beautifully to my heart that I went running after it. It begins “My work is loving the world.” The rest of the poem, and indeed the rest of the collection, seems to bear out that declaration, as Oliver notices the specific beauty and sacredness of created things and finds her place in the world as a grateful singer.
“Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
she writes, in words that I find I too can claim. I quote here not just to share a part of the poem I love, but to give you a taste of her metrics, the way she breaks lines and finds music in words.
While nature is the underlying music in most of the poems here, other notes emerge as important refrains. A number of the poems in this volume have to do with aging, death, and grief. In several poems, such as “After Her Death,” and “What I Said at Her Service,” Oliver wrestles overtly with her grief over the death of her partner of many years. Her wrestling with loneliness and her grief over the loss of human love has a quiet counterpart in her poems about her beloved but elderly dog Percy. The different kinds of loves – for beauty, for animal companions, for a human friend and lover – all swirl gently together like different colored liquids in a glass. And the glass is offered up gently as a cup she and the reader can sip together.
Oliver’s meditations on nature are always gentle and astute, and there are countless numbers of them that I love in this collection, including “Walking Home from Oak-Head,” “Ribbon Snake Asleep in the Sun,” (which reminded me much of Emily Dickinson), “Swimming With Otter,” and “The Beautiful, Striped Sparrow.”
What’s particularly moving in this volume, however, are the ways she turns so many of those meditations Godward, moving them into the realm of prayer. Although I don’t know anything specific about Oliver’s spiritual journey, it seems clear to me through these poems that she has come/is coming to a newfound sense of God’s presence – both in the created world, and in the world of the church. She connects her poetic work of loving attention to her life as a Christian. Three poems, presented in a row, seem to speak especially deeply to her growing faith: “Coming to God, First Days,” “The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist,” and “Six Recognitions of the Lord.” For readers who are perhaps not used to Oliver moving specifically and concretely in the realm of faith, these poems may come as a surprise. As someone who shares that faith, I found them deeply moving. She wears the voice of a Christian mystic simply and well. Her clear-focused eyes and poetic heart seem ready-made for understanding all of life in a sacramental way.
Then there is the poem “More Beautiful than the Honey Locust Tree Are the Words of the Lord” where she seems awash in awestruck praise, recognizing that even her finest, choicest words are just one drop of the ocean of praise that sings all around her:
“It is close to hopeless,
for what I want to say the red-bird
has said already, and better, in a thousand trees…”
And yet she continues to write, to pray, to be what she feels called to be:
“Lord, let me be a flower, even a tare; or a sparrow.
Or the smallest bright stone in a ring worn by someone
brave and kind, whose name I will never know.”
That humility and gentleness pervades the entire collection. Thirst both quenched my thirst for poetic beauty, and made me thirsty for more.
Poems by Mary Oliver
Beacon Press, 2006