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
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.