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New and Selected Poems, Volume One


I don't usually love career-spanning surveys of a poet's entire body of work; I prefer shorter, more manageable books with a little more focus. Or a little less focus, maybe--sometimes I feel like comprehensive collections can be TOO comprehensive, and end up feeling repetitive. This collection suffers from that a little, but only a very little. Mary Oliver's knowledge of the natural world, the specificity of the creatures and beings who appear in her poems, and her travels through various ecosystems, keep her poems fresh and varied. Even if she does return over and over to the same feeling of wonder and dread and acceptance of the cycle of life and death.


My favorite poems of Oliver's tend not to be the ones that get shared all over Pinterest and Facebook--"Wild Geese" is in this collection, and it's a good poem, but I've always preferred the joyous nihilism of "The Moths": "If I stopped/ the pain/ was unbearable. // If I stopped and thought, maybe/ the world/ can't be saved,/ the pain/ was unbearable."


And on this read I (re)discovered "The Fish":


The first fish

I ever caught

would not lie down

quiet in the pail

but flailed and sucked

at the burning

amazement of the air

and died

in the slow pouring off

of rainbows. Later

I opened his body and separated

the flesh from the bones

and ate him. Now the sea

is in me: I am the fish, the fish

glitters in me; we are

risen, tangled together, certain to fall

back to the sea. Out of pain,

and pain, and more pain

we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished

by the mystery.


The burning amazement of the air. You could do worse than building a religion on Oliver's words, you know? I don't know if "could lead a death cult I'd be happy to believe in" is the ringing endorsement of her poetry that she'd want, but it's what I've got.

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