‘Swan’ by Mary Oliver

Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not meant to be a crumb.

(From “Don’t Hesitate” page 42.)

Oh, I like this book. She touches me. She allows me to touch her. There’s a feeling of exchange here. I end up feeling as though I know Mary Oliver. I want to call her and tell her what these poems mean to me.

My review of “Swan” is written in the spirit of a Mary Oliver poem. She doesn’t mind sharing her process with her reader. She writes as if her poems are intended to be read by someone else, as if she’s waking up with us and taking us with her into the woods for her daily walk — even though she expressly states in the beginning of the collection that she prefers not to have someone along, confessing

I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.

If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love
you very much.

(From “How I Go To The Woods” page 5.)

I’ve become convinced that the work of the poet is a spiritual endeavor whose job it is to appreciate, to notice, to love as fully as s/he can despite the vulnerability that openness entails. Mary Oliver does her work well. She’s an evolved and evolving being; a grown-up. There’s a wisdom in these poems. And it’s a relief to find true maturity—a maturity that is infused with the sheer joy of childhood.

The song you heard singing in the leaf when you were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

(From “What Can I Say?” page 1.)

Finally, her work is full of the unexpected. For example, there is a collection of four sonnets full of observations of the natural world that ends with this surprise last line:

Obama works, prays, then grabs his scrim of sleep.

(From “Four Sonnets” page 47.)

This is one of the only times she directly mentions another human being or gives any clue that she is following what goes in the world of politics and policies. But it makes sense. Oliver writes about the herons, and foxes, and the swan, but she is not an escapist. In fact, the opposite is true. She knows that it’s up to us humans to try to make things right … even if we fail.

There are many things we can learn about Mary Oliver from reading these poems – that she had a really nice relationship with her little dog Percy, for instance. The press release mentions that she lived with her now deceased lover, Mary Malone Cook, in Provincetown MA for over forty years. While there is nothing explicitly lesbian about this book, knowing that she is a woman who lived her life in a committed relationship with another woman makes me feel all the more proud.


By Mary Oliver
Beacon Press
Hardcover, 9780807068991, 96pp
September 2010