For the love of Mary Oliver’s poetry, I picked up her book of selected essays with some trepidation. I was so used to reading her spare poems, I was not sure I could make the switch to prose. But no worries, I was an easy convert. I forced myself not to race through the book because I wanted to give each chapter its due. Here we find thoughtful personal commentary on Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and Ralph Waldo Emerson. And of course, plenty of meandering walks through her beloved Provincetown woods and wetlands.
One of the final chapters on building a small house with salvaged materials was, oddly enough, my favorite. “Gusto, not finesse, was my trademark,” she tells us. (I could relate because that’s exactly how I feel when I pick up a hammer and build something funky out of scraps of wood.) “I was playing. I was whimsical, absorbed, happy. Let me always be who I am, and then some,” she says.
Oh, that I might take that last sentence as an anthem: to always be who I am and then some. Surely that describes self actualization.
As soon as I finished the last chapter, I turned right back to the first one. It ends with one paragraph of a single sentence. “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Those words, too, are worth their weight in gold as far as I am concerned. And it is well demonstrated in the writing here, sometimes to an extreme I could barely imagine, as in hours and hours spent observing a common spider in the stairwell of her rented house. Other critters abound – tales of dogs, owls, a snapping turtle, fox and injured seagull. Oliver’s loving attention to the natural world seems as simple as breathing.
Really, I do not know how to leave this book behind. Reading makes me want to disappear into nature for awhile. For Mary Oliver, her work with words is an adventure into the unknown. Some of her writing is done outdoors, and I smile to think of her that way, scribbling her observations as she strolls through the scrub pines. Her call to solitude is sacred, and aren’t we lucky to be invited in? “I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”
I cannot imagine writing a review of any of Mary Oliver’s work without constantly quoting her. I am humbled by her gift, grateful for the way she opens the door to her temple for all of us. Enter and rejoice!
Keddy Ann Outlaw
A librarian for nearly 30 years, Keddy is also a veteran reviewer for Library Journal. Formerly an art major, she’s now busy making mixed media collages, prints and assemblages, and posting as “The Lone Star Librarian” on her website, Speed of Light.