For 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.
Day 38, “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver
April is National Poetry Month, and so today’s review is devoted to Mary Oliver.
Mary Oliver is a popular and prolific American poet whose work has earned her both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Like Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, Mary Oliver’s words observe the natural world and her ideas ponder man’s place in it. Oliver is a native of Ohio who relocated and has lived for many years in New England. As a teenager, she visited Edna St. Vincent Millay’s home, now an artist colony in upstate New York, and later returned and befriended Millay’s sister. Whitman, Thoreau, Millay were all influences on Oliver as a young poet. Like those artists, a strong focus in her work is place. Her poems are infused with memories of her childhood years in Ohio, plus her adopted home in the East–particularly Provincetown. She’s considered by some as a regionalist, but her thoughts on home, nature, people, life, are universal. She writes of simple and deep emotions–walks in the woods that inspire enthusiastic joy, or words of solitary grief and loneliness. She shares soulful questions and sharp observations, and reading her poems is like a small visit to a touching emotional landscape set along rough pathways or calmer, peaceful forests.
“When Death Comes” combines nature and man in a topic that is somber and frightening, but also curious and hopeful. She compares death to a hungry bear, a pox, an iceberg, a cottage of darkness, but she also regards the end of life on earth with an eager and inquisitive eye. What will death be like? In pondering this question, she must think about life and how she wants to spend hers. She decides she wants to be able to say, “I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” Ultimately, she wants to have lived in the community of the world, and not just passed through as a visitor.
Why is Mary Oliver’s poetry a good read for women? I viewed this poem with my own writer’s eye, but also as a human considering how I am living my own life. Do I have the lion’s courage Oliver mentions, to write, to share my work and expose myself, and leave this world as more than a visitor? Good writing–poetry or prose–leads to good questions like these. Exploring Mary Oliver’s poems is an exploration of place and nature, of people and their kindness and flaws, and so finally of the world around and of the human heart.