Another Voice May Speak: Mary Oliver

In Mary Oliver's world, prayers are made of grass.

The legendary poet read from her new work, Red Bird, at the State Theatre on Sunday. Because we are, in Oliver's parlance, on the shoulder of two seasons, many of the poems chosen were spring-themed. This is not a stretch for the Pulitzer Prize-winner: she has a poem entitled "Spring" in every book, a cyclical renewal where form mirrors content.

That's where the grass comes in. It is more than a metaphor in her well-loved poem "Mindful"; green fields and rich meadows are the places where communion is reached. Oliver's primary influences are the 19th century masters, especially Walt Whitman, who had his own relationship with grass. This influence shows in her technical proficiency, but also the poet's gentle fusion of nature with the spiritual.

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Mary Oliver. Photo by Rachel Giese Brown.

This is usually explicit. In "Gethsemane," the lines about Jesus flow right into a line concerning a cricket. Or in
"Praying," a mantra-like poem which celebrates attention to small things. Even in the Percy poems, verses scripted in honor of Oliver's six-year-old Bichon Frise, we see a series of relationships with the transcendent.

These poems also highlight the distinction between reading Oliver and having her present, voicing the lines. The humor comes out more, both in subtle lines about having more than one copy of the Bhagavad Gita available and in the over-the-top jibes at Donald Rumsfeld. It's one thing to enjoy the poems quietly on your own, and quite another to share Oliver's cleverness communally with hundreds of others.

Another pleasure gifted to audience members was "Thinking of Swirler," an Oliver poem that has not yet been collected into any book. The bittersweet poem about a deer with one bad leg who is taken by a bowhunter is both lovely and heartbreaking.

But the heart must be broken sometimes. It is necessary. This is another Oliverian principle expressed most poignantly in the poem "Lead":


I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

In response to a query from the crowd, Oliver declared that her poems "absolutely" are meant as prayers. Prayers made of grass, and loons, and iris, and keenly gathered words.


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