Sunday, June 8, 2008

You will leap to name it

Yesterday, in Warren, we sat in chairs outside the Coffee Depot and read. M. had the New York Times; I had Mary Oliver's American Primitive. I had forgotten about Mary Oliver until I saw her entire oeuvre on the bookshelf of one of our friends in central Massachusetts; I am glad to have been reminded. There is something miraculous about her writing--about its depths and density, belied by the slimness of the volume itself. In her poems we go down, down, down: from the clouds to the ground; from the branches of trees; from our own eyes. No poet I can think of has made me so aware of the earthward course of poetry, its down-turned gaze and its rooted, gnarled ecstasy. "Moles" is a two sentence poem, the first a line-by-line excavation of itself: we descend with Oliver and with her moles through the earth's strata, and turn over each layer in our mouths, carefully.
Under the leaves, under
the first loose
levels of earth
they're there--quick
as beetles, blind
as bats, shy
as hares but seen
less than these--
among the pale girders
of appleroot,
rockshelf, nests
of insects and black
pastures of bulbs
peppery and packed full
of the sweetest food:
spring flowers.
Oliver's alliteration not only moves us through geologic layers, but also helps us feel the earth in our mouths. So when the second sentence--and the poem--ends with the word "delicious" we almost have to agree. We have tasted it, too.

The poems in American Primitive make me think of my own experience of Ohio, though Oliver's Ohio is rougher, provisional, and always nearly swallowed by the land around it. Still, they evoke vernal pools and voluble toads and the coming to life of a liminal town in the spring; they give us a way to watch that we don't have in the city.

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