Mine was a childhood in which the outdoors was mostly the province of boys, those grandsires of empire encouraged to hone their conquering instincts by treating what wildlife there was, the bugs and gastropods of our backyards, as sport. Little girls like me, a cultured foil for our marauding, muddy-kneed counterparts, distracted ourselves inside. (I shudder, watching Masterpiece’s Victoria, at the brute domesticity of the setting, the hours spent dressing hair and choosing clothes, the dolls: that dull abuse of time, my inheritance.) All these years later, out on that woodsy, North American track, I had, therefore, either to re-classify myself, or else ignore the helpless amphibian at my feet. I meant to save its life, no less, but was horribly conscious of our difference, and of my impostor status in this vast continent across which I, an immigrant, had been given roaming rights. Would I hurt the creature if I touched it? And what would it, with its exotic neon wriggle, do to me?
In Upstream, an expertly arranged selection of essays from Mary Oliver’s quarter-century of prose publishing — she is best known for her half-century of poetry — the author describes no such squeamish, catatonic fuss. She learned early on “that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields, or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.” Two of her unusually confessional opening essays, “My Friend Walt Whitman” and “Staying Alive,” present such confusion in the form of unreliable and dangerous family members, Oliver’s brooding, careless father trapped in “the awful prison of himself,” and a cherished uncle who “killed himself one rainy fall day.” This is the woman who, in her girlish sorrow, lay down to suckle from the “full moon” of her cat’s teats and “tasted the rich river of her body,” the woman who, in springtime, kneels to “put [her] face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness,” who appropriates Blake to quote at a snapping turtle, “old shag-face” — “Did He who made the lily make you too?” This is the woman who remembers herself as the child who walked “all one spring day, upstream,” away from her parents, delighting in lostness, in the “humility […] of the leaf-world”:
The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats; pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened, and opened again. The water pushed against my effort, then its glassy permission to step ahead touched my ankles. The sense of going toward the source.
I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home.
“Do you know anything about where you live, what it offers?” Oliver asks her reader, incredulous that so many of us have unlearned “the desire to be lost,” resisting so hard our cure.
When I made contact with that nomadic newborn salamander, I felt an electric exchange, an extravagant surge of heroism pulse through me that seemed to fling open at once all the little doors to the great possibilities of life. I felt the eft’s vibrant cells, its little life, adhere to mine, and took a great metaphysical tumble that, without Oliver, might have remained unparsed (“My heart opened, and opened again”: yes). In these quietly radical, sublimely structured compositions, it is the potential of this fervent, hedonistic connection with nature, and books, and hence ourselves — its significance to our political deliverance, even — that Oliver, ostensibly reticent, ascetic and apolitical, celebrates.
Over a decade ago, in the foreword to Long Life, a hybrid collection of poems and essays, Oliver claimed that she “would rather write poems than prose, any day, any place,” “rather fly than plow,” in part because poems are “less cautious.” “Come with me into the field of sunflowers,” she says in the eponymous, opening selection of her new book, “is a better line than anything you will find here.” But if the work of the essays in Upstream felt to Oliver like plowing, she succeeds in disguising that effort. Her prose glides, measured rather than cautious, so that we enjoy the ascending and descending rows of the author’s thought that return to us and extend out again, ending in suitably poetic finale. And while it is Oliver’s expertise in poetry that allows her to arrange her observations into highly satisfying patterns of argument, the essay form allows for contemplative wandering that takes her, and consequently her reader, on a more leisurely kind of journey. We can wander inside her poems, for sure, but her essays allow us to ramble.
The works gathered here, from 1995’s Blue Pastures through 2013’s Dog Songs, confirm Oliver as no mere occasional essayist or prose “interludist,” but a master of the form. A skilled exegetist, she reviews nature and literature both, “the gates through which [she] vanished” from the “difficult place” of her childhood. Just as she anatomizes and explains the natural world, so she articulates with exactitude the inner-outer dramas that informed Emerson’s, Whitman’s, and Poe’s voices (how surprised I was to see this last, so relentlessly dark, in these pages). Though women have clearly been important influences (Oliver met her longtime partner, the accomplished photographer Molly Malone Cook while helping organize Edna St. Vincent Millay’s papers), she acknowledges few of them in this book, no mention here of Dickinson or Alcott — and I, of a generation that, quite rightly, insists on inclusion, missed them. However there’s a characteristic sincerity in her focus on necessarily male influences (she was born in 1935): if she responded above all to Whitman and Emerson, so be it. Oliver is a woman who has chosen to live through her own creative impulses, her own best model.
The book’s four main sections each address a discrete focus — here water creatures, there literary and metaphysical influence — with Section One acting as a decisive, lyrical overture that introduces Oliver’s interrelated themes: the importance of connecting with nature and recognizing our forebears, our context within the whole, and how those of us drawn to create have a responsibility to embrace the pursuit of happiness through our work. I laughed to see myself in this repurposed Transcendental vision: an American at last!
“Staying Alive,” that indelible essay from the first section, establishes Oliver’s ancient interest in these topics and typifies her private-natured openness and respectfully detached intimacy, which provide both the book’s rational groundwork — its mature demonstration of paradox and balance — and the source of its beauty, the ethereal, musical, and imagistic overlay.
Adults can change their circumstances; children cannot […] I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly. I read by day and into the night. I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes. I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness. […] I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door — a thousand opening doors! — past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.
A pioneering homebody, Oliver invites us, with her, to search within, but she counterpoises that inner gaze with practical, external concerns. Now shod in academic oxfords, now barefoot, Oliver pushes forward, by turns calm or impassioned, along her rhetorical furrows as she engages in a heady balancing act between the pragmatic and the Romantic. “[T]hose who are the world’s working artists,” she says, “are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. […] Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else.” Meanwhile, Oliver the Romantic, pupil of Keats and Whitman and Shelley (he who Oliver gives the book’s epigraph), waxes in high lyric mode: “The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame.”
While the sum of the opening section reads as one sweeping lyrical movement, the section’s last essay, “Of Power and Time,” provides a decisive artistic coda that begins with the limpid, no-nonsense opening: “It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk.” We can almost hear the whip crack, but gently. Then her assertion — accusation almost — that we are all, in our distractibility, our own worst “person from Porlock.” Oliver does not lack humor, yet, where a brasher writer would have exploited this Coleridgean allusion, she paraphrases:
But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation.
The ruthless conclusion of the essay, and hence of the section, reads, “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” This is the guiding tone of the work: magisterial, sincere, and unashamedly available.
In Section Two, Oliver paints her landscape and introduces us, in broad strokes, to some of the wildlife she has encountered, while Section Three contains the examinations of some of her major Romantic and Gothic influences — odes, really, either direct or implied, to her literary “family.” In a soaring, devotional sequence of essays that include “Swoon,” “Bird,” “Owls,” and “Winter Hours,” pieces brought intelligently together from earlier collections, Section Four returns to the animal world for an intimate exchange.
After a lifetime of dedicated practice, Oliver has become a master of meditating on the natural universe. She has created an atlas of metamorphic encounters, and how willingly I found myself following her precisely stacked cairns. Here all life flies and runs and swims, and the delight for the reader is visceral and vicarious, as we reach out with her hands, in “Bird,” to gather up a distressed gull and bring it home:
A bathtub is a convenient and cool place in which to put an injured bird, and there this bird lay, on its side, through the rest of the day. But the next morning, its eyes were open and it sat, though clumsily, erect. It lifted its head and drank from a cup of water, little sips. It was a shattered elegance, grossly injured; the outer bone of one wing broken, the other wing injured as well […] In the language of the day, it was bankrupt.
Though she foreshadows the death of the gull here — Oliver is never manipulative — we celebrate with her the small victories and pleasures of the friendship (for such it is), which includes both caring for and playing with the beloved invalid. Oliver moves the bird so it — “he” — can watch the action of the natural light, and, after it pecks at some holiday wrapping paper, she “invent[s] games” for it: “I drew pictures — of fish, of worms, of leggy spiders, of hot dogs — which he would pick at with a particularly gleeful intent.” She gives it baths and a soft toy lion; she throws water and feathers for it to catch: “I tossed by hand, he with his enormous, deft beak. […] His eyes sparkled.”
As the gull weakens, she soothes him with Mahler and Brahms; she calls on her doctor for advice: “But the rough-and-tumble work of dying was going on, even in the quiet body” — she tries, when the gull begins to suffer, “to kill him, with sleeping pills.” We follow Oliver on each stage of her joyful yet devastating journey, right to its end, where she arrives, characteristically, at revelation:
He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not a fact; this is the other part of knowing something, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief. Imagine lifting the lid from a jar and finding it filled not with darkness but with light. Bird was like that. Startling, elegant, alive.
Thus, she summons us into the presence of the world, and encourages us to engage with it in a spirit of profound, pragmatic compassion: to sit, too, with ourselves. But she is no moralizing bore. Oliver understands the mess in which we find ourselves is mostly inherited, and that we are creatures as vulnerable to circumstance as any unlucky, gaffed piece of sea-life she comes across on the shore. These fates she records with the same quiet, humane realism.
There’s a sense of comfort, therefore, when the book, almost at its conclusion, swerves away from its climax into the prosaically appealing “Building the House.” This is an amateur carpenter’s homage to the creative act:
There appears in my mind a form […] Once, in fact, I built a house […] a one-room, one-floored affair set in the ivies and vincas of the backyard, and made almost entirely of salvaged materials. Still, it had a door. […] It was the house I had built. There would be no other.
Though she admits she barely used the little outbuilding afterward, it is the imagining of it and then the following through that makes the whole endeavor worthwhile. The house/creation metaphor is self-evident, but Oliver can risk cliché because the example is apt; it is true. The essay is memorable because of its material clarity, and because Oliver’s trust in simplicity knocks us off our guard.
Her quietly spoken pieces, like the work of any great philosopher, cumulatively become loud in a collection spanning 20 years, the writer remaining at once dynamically engaged with her subjects and at the same time reflective, everything colliding in her heart, silently making sense. We hear it in “Staying Alive,” which might well have been the title for the book:
And now my old dog is dead, and another I had after him, and my parents are dead, and that first world, that old house, is sold and lost, and the books I gathered there lost, or sold — but more books bought, and in another place, board by board and stone by stone, like a house, a true life built, and all because I was steadfast about one of two things: loving foxes, and poems, the blank piece of paper, and my own energy — and mostly the shimmering shoulders of the world that shrug carelessly over the fate of any individual that they may, the better, keep the Niles and the Amazons flowing.
And that I did not give to anyone the responsibility for my life. It is mine. I made it. And can do what I want to with it. Live it. Give it back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes.
Upstream is a work of willful, iconoclastic “I am-ness,” offered for posterity. Oliver’s writing contains a distinct, balanced, and timely political clarity in the way each piece advocates, without fuss or noise, for self-determination, while championing the indigenous wisdom of interdependence. The arrangement of the chapters is nothing short of a mighty revision that reveals Oliver as a voice — a yawp — as necessary and timeless as her inspirations, those writers for whom she assumes an “inherited responsibility,” carrying their legacy on generous, linguistically able shoulders. She knows, as Whitman did, that “[t]ouch is the miracle,” — that only an inheritance of wonder will save us, no great gesture, but each small effort of connection and revision, each incremental act of reckoning with whatever we consider unreachable, the what — or who — we meet on our walk, and most of all that undiscovered “other” who waits inside our selves.
Nicola Waldron’s meditations on displacement, alpine love, and narrative vertigo can be found at Assay, About Place, and Agni, and two short memoirs are forthcoming in Post Road and Proximity. She teaches at the University of South Carolina.