Mary Oliver’s poetry has been on the peripheries of my life for the past five years — she attended “the” Ohio State University for a couple of years in the 1950s, so the school I just graduated from has a soft spot for her. In other words, I’ve heard about her and assigned her but never really read more than one or two poems by her. Until now!
Someone shared the poem “Wild Geese” with me and it piqued my interest…so being the obsessive reader I am, I decided to go for it and see what she’s been up to for the past several decades. Turns out, she’s been up to quite a bit. Each of these collections is organized in reverse chronological order, so I started at the end of Volume One and worked my way forward through the years. I continued this pattern through Volume Two, and it was a really interesting way to experience Oliver’s poems.
I noticed a general trend that her earlier poems were more focused on nature and how experiencing nature influences her internal landscape. Then, starting in the late 1970s and continuing on through the early 1990s, the poems are much more heavily inflected with religious beliefs and images. I was not very interested by this particular trend in Oliver’s work (although these are collections so perhaps this trend does not permeate all of her work from this era?), but was pleased to see that in the late 1990s and onward she returns to nature as an inspiration. The role of nature is slightly different in the new poems than it was in the older ones. Specifically, the newer poems seem more preoccupied with capturing snapshots of precise moments when the real-life Oliver encountered nature (especially deer — there are a lot of deer in the newest poems in Volume Two) rather than using nature as a mirror or lens that helps her understand life.
I’d definitely recommend Volume One, and would recommend Volume Two to anyone who reads Volume One and enjoys it. Even though I didn’t like the second collection as much as the first, I still enjoyed it immensely.
GOOD FOR: Readers who are feeling introspective, nature junkies, and anyone who’s interested in giving poetry a try.
BAD FOR: Those looking for a quick little chapbook, people who enjoy super-fast-paced poetry (I’m thinking of poets like Andrea Gibson and Patrick Rosal), and fans of closed forms.