I am not particularly fond of books of essays. I usually find them dense, bloated, and pedantic. Frankly I find them boring.
But despite that opinion, something made me pick up and start reading Mary Oliver’s book of essays, Upstream. What a pleasant surprise. I was engaged from the first page. What I discovered is an essay by a poet, especially an accomplished poet, is a different matter.
In the first place the essays are succinct with sharply focused language, the language of poetry. And they are laced with metaphor, also the language of poetry.
When the essays are written by a person as unique as Mary Oliver the lessons and the surprises just keep flowing, beginning with her upstream metaphor. Even as a child she found herself, and recognized, that she was out of step with the world, that she was indeed walking Upstream. In her words…..
I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field.
I walked, all in one day, upstream……
I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home.
Being out of step with the world she needed special friends, and she found them in the poets, Whitman, Wordsworth and others that spoke to her, and she found them in the animals of the outdoors she wandered by and through.
She describes each of these in her essays, talking about Emerson and Poe as well as Whitman and Wordsworth, talking about her encounters with birds and deer and turtles, and the lessons she learned from each. And she talks about bird rescue and building her own little house, fitted out with a yellow door contributed by no less a friend than the poet Stanley Kunitz living in the same town, Provincetown, as Mary herself.
I savored these essays, reading no more than one a day and some days only a part of an essay. Nonetheless, despite my dawdling, the book and the essays eventually came to an end, and I have been left with some wonderful thoughts to keep on pondering:
I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple
—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel.
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.
On the soul
You can fool a lot of yourself
but you can’t fool the soul.
The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and the absolute but to the extravagant and the possible. Answers are no part of it; rather, it is the opinions, the rhapsodic persuasions, the engrafted logics, the clues that are to the mind of the reader the possible keys to his own self-quarrels, his own predicament.
In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions.
Which are, at the same time, the fires that warm us and the fires that scorch us.