Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

"Dream Work" by Mary Oliver (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986)

Very soon I all but ignored the line-breaks. She prefers short (often stepped) lines. Reading the back-cover - "she has turned her attention in these poems to the solitary and difficult labors of the spirit" - I had a feeling I'd struggle with this book. I agree with many of Jough Dempsey's comments. She mixes familiar comments about self - e.g.

  • You don't want to hear the story/ of my life, and anyway/ I don't want to tell it, I want to listen// to the enormous waterfalls of the sun. // And anyway it's the same old story -/ a few people just trying, one way or another,/ to survive.// Mostly, I want to be kind" (p.4)
  • How does any of us live in this world?/ One thing compensates for another, I suppose./ Sometimes what's wrong does not hurt at all, but rather/ shines like a new moon (p.22)
  • That winter my mind had turned around,/ shedding, like leaves, its bolts of information -/ drilling down, through history,/ toward my motionless heart (p.26)
  • Have you ever/ tried to/ slide into/ the heaven of sensation and met// you know not what/ resistance but it/ held you back? (p.29)

with unsurprising observation of nature. Is the suddenness of the switching the main feature?

I'm told "The Journey" is the book's best known piece. Here's the start and end, and a few bits in the middle - "One day you finally knew/ what you had to do, and began,/ though the voices around you/ kept shouting/ their bad advice ... "Mend my life!"/ each voice cried./ But you didn't stop./ You knew what you had to do ... there was a new voice,/ which you slowly/ recognized as your own, that kept you company/ as you strode deeper and deeper/ into the world,/ determined to do/ the only thing you could do –/ determined to save/ the only life you could save.". Inspirational? Alas, not for me.

I liked "Members of the tribe" - "That time I wanted to die somebody was playing the piano in the room with me. It was Mozart. It was Beethoven. It was Bruckner. In the kitchen a man with one ear was painting a flower.". Often the best parts of a poem are at the start and finish (the announcement of a metaphor and the punchline) -

  • "Milkweed" - "standing like a country of dry women ... it's easy to believe each one was once young and delicate ... I wish you could see what has to happen, how each one crackles like a blessing over its thin children as they rush away"
  • "The shark" - "Whoever He is, count on it: He won't answer. The inventor is like the hunter - each in the crease and spasm of the thing about to be done is lost in his work. All else is peripheral, remote, unfelt. The connections have broken. Consider the evening: the shark winched into the air; men lifting the last bloody hammers. And Him, somewhere, ponderously lifting another world, setting it free to spin, if it can, in a darkness you can't imagine."
  • "The Sunflowers" - "Come with me into the field of sunflowers. Their faces are burnished disks, their dry spines creak like ship masts, ... they are shy but want to be friends ... let us talk with those modest faces, the simple garments of leaves, the coarse roots in the earth so uprightly burning".

I see nothing at all special in these poems except for an image or two. An abiding theme is of Nature (the sea in particular) as another world (despite the narrator's wish for communion), surprisingly indifferent to humankind -

  • "Starfish" - "In the sea rocks, in the stone pockets under the tide's lip, in water dense as blindness they slid like sponges, like too many thumbs ... while I lay on the rocks, reaching into the darkness, learning little by little to love our only world."
  • "Poem" - "The spirit likes to dress up like this: ten fingers, ten toes, shoulders and all the rest ... it needs the metaphor of the body ... it needs the body's world, instinct and imagination and the dark hug of time ... so it enters us - in the morning shines from brute comfort like a stitch of lightning; and at night lights up the deep and wondrous drownings of the body like a star"
  • "The turtle" - "you think of her patience, her fortitude, her determination to complete what she was born to do - and then you realize a greater thing - she doesn't consider what she was born to do. She's only filled with an old blind wish". Indeed.
  • "The waves" - "When death happens on land, on some hairpin piece of road, we crawl past, imagining over and over that moment of disaster. ... Surely the sea is the most beautiful fact in our universe, but you won't find a fisherman who will say so; what they say is, see you later ... And the bones of the drowned fisherman are returned, half a year later, in the glittering, laden nets."

I don't find the spiritual innuendos deep. Far from it. For example, I disliked "Sunrise", "Storm in Massachusetts, September 1982".

No comments:

Post a Comment