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'Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, And Poems' by Mary Oliver

Poet Oliver reveals nature of her soul

Sunday, June 20, 1999

By Rina Ferrarelli


Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, And Poems

By Mary Oliver

Houghton Mifflin


This miscellany by Mary Oliver, a poet who writes “tenderly” about nature, will be a treat for people who know and like her poems and a good introduction for the general reader who has yet to discover her work.

Written “out of meditation and memory,” it contains personal essays; essays on Poe, Hopkins, Frost and Whitman from a poet’s point of view; and prose and verse poems. It is, as the blurb claims, her most personal book, but “don’t look,” she tells us, “for a portrait that is chronological, or talks much about my professional life, or opens to public view the important and proper secrets of the heart.”

Still, there is much here that illuminates her life and, what’s more important, the poems themselves. She takes Samuel Johnson as her model and calls these writings, all true in the “autobiographical sense of the word,” “parts of a conversation or a long and slowly arriving letter -- somewhat disorderly, natural in expression, and happily unfinished.”

Her first essay, “Building the House,” sounds the note for the rest of the book. The small makeshift house she built in her yard with care, enjoyment but little skill represents, like the houses of our dreams, “the state of our soul, or, if you prefer it, the state of the mind,” a mind with a lamp glowing in it.

Not only is Oliver not self-conscious about using the word soul, she prefers it. She’s also telling us something about herself we may have not surmised from her carefully wrought lyrics, claiming imperfection and an ability to live with it and suggesting that nature includes human nature, includes her.

But the only human nature in some of her books is the literary persona of Mary Oliver, a solitary being connected to other living things but not necessarily to people. In this book the circle of one expands to include M, her companion. The references are few, but what she says is unequivocal:

“Privacy, no longer cherished in the world, is all the same still a natural and sensible attribute of paradise. We are happy, and we are lucky. …We make for each other: companionship, intimacy, affection, rhapsody.” M is also the subject of the poem “Whistler.”

Oliver’s amazement at the mystery of nature extends to the mystery of living with someone for more than 30 years and having something about her suddenly revealed. In this case that M is a “dark, lovely whistler.”

In the essay “The Swan,” she gives us her “want” list for her poems and reveals “a ‘secret’ humor” in the writing of the poem by the same name. And as is true of all writers, she also offers insights into herself by what she chooses to write about in her critical essays, what she finds significant in the work of others: “the dream of capturing the impossible” in Poe; “the poem as prayer” in Hopkins; the discrepancy in Frost’s poems between rhythm and rhyme, “everything is all right,” and the words, “everything is not all right”; and the presentation of Whitman as a mystic whose “idea of paradise” was here.

But the best statement of her poetics is given in the short lyric “The Storm”:

Now through the white orchard my little dog

romps, breaking the new snow

with wild feet.

Running here running there, excited,

hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins

until the white snow is written upon

in large, exuberant letters,

a long sentence, expressing

the pleasures of the body in this world.

Oh, I could not have said it better


Some poets use the gamut of human experience in their poems, the pleasures of the body as well as the pains, grief, disappointments; in Mary Oliver’s poetry, joy, surprise and astonishment are the dominant notes.

Rina Ferrarelli is a poet and prize-winning translator who lives in Pittsburgh.

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