Spring 1986, Volume 3
Joan L. Wilcox
The Pulse of the Blood, the Rhythm of the Body: A Critical Review of Mary Oliver's American Primitive
At a time when many contemporary poets are only grudgingly acknowledging that poetry has become, over the course of the twentieth century, an academic pursuit - an intellectual who's who and what's what of literary allusion, deep images, philosophic and, even, linguistic razzle-dazzle - a fresh voice can be heard: a voice of lyric simplicity and imagistic delight. This voice belongs to Mary Oliver, the 1984 Pulitizer Prize winner for her book American Primitive. Oliver's poetry is a welcome addition to the canon of twentieth century poetry. A reviewer for Publisher's Weekly says it best: the poetry of American Primitive is so 11 plain, direct, you have to stop and wonder why some other contemporary poets cloak themselves in such fussy veils". For just when we were growing used to the poetry of Freudian psychoanalysis, of personal confession, of dense or deep or surrealistic imagery, of footnotes, we are, perhaps unexpectedly, confronted witha poetry of simple "still lifes and landscapes," intent on re-creating the "experience of the eye and body"'. Like the English Romantics Wordsworth and Keats, Oliver finds that the apprehension of knowledge lies in the perception of the senses. She reveals through sensual and direct imagery a natural world suffused with an intense and often mysterious creative spirit. Her poetry "deals with questions of feelings and states of existence, the ultimate mystery of the pulse, the insoluble issues never far from intense joy and intense dread"s.
This philosophy is inextricably wedded to Oliver's identification with a non-literary audience, perhaps it is even a natural outgrowth of her sense that poetry has been largely lost to the ordinary person because the scientifictechnological world has fragmented society and severed it from understanding of a common world:
Poetry is metaphorical, full of images, and there is no longer a common world from which to draw these pictures ...
In the times that are gone, it was not so easy for men and women to ignore poetry, but those times are gone. Then poetry was a tribal business and had its part in religious ceremonies, play, love-making. The material and questions it dealt with were more closely interwoven with day to day life. Now it is possible to live a life among the pranks and easements of technology and indeed never feel the boom of the mysteries slam against the forehead in the dark.4
Oliver's assessment of art's relation to the modern, technological world is one many poets before her have made. Like Whitman, Frost, Roethke, her poetry is an interweaving of a personal philosophy that cannot be easily separated from the audience for whom it is intended. The title of Oliver's book American Primitive demonstrates the duality of theme and audience, Nature past and Nature present. Primitive America, embodying the settler's hope of finding a new Eden, is forever gone, their everyday interaction with its benevolent and malevolent natural forces has also largely vanished. Primitive America is now Technological America. While the early Americans may not have realized their dreams and aspirations in the New World, at least they shared a common goal: to face the vast, often hostile, wilderness and from it build a country. Modern Americans have no such common cause. The disappearance of wilderness has left a void, denying modem America a symbol of its "tribal" root, consequently its experience of primitive bodily sensation.
Oliver's poetry attempts to resurrect or re-create this American primitive experience, for with the loss of Nature and the dubious gain of technology, she senses that "we live according to our differences rather than our sameness."5 One of the features of sameness that we have lost, forgotten, or ignored is the identification with body and bodily senses. Divorced from Nature, we divorce ourselves from the most primitive truth of all: that we not only live in a natural world, but that we are indeed Nature's offspring.
It is Oliver's intention to help the ordinary person rediscover his or her heritage and "tribal" roots, a body that responds to the natural world because it is part of it. The means of re-discovery is two-fold: through the senses and the imagination. Through the senses humanity may awaken imagination; through an imaginative identification with Nature, it can treat the "discontent and fever" that is everywhere in modern society.6 Poems such as "The Sea" offer the medicine by taking the reader back to his natural beginnings:
Stroke by stroke my body remembers that life and cries for the lost parts of itself fins, gills opening like flowers into the flesh - my legs want to lock and become one muscle, I swear I know just what the blue-gray scales shingling the rest of me would feel like! paradise! Sprawled in the motherlap, in that drearnhouse of salt and exercise, what a spillage of nostalgia pleads from the very bones! how they long to give up the long trek inland, the brittle beauty of understanding, and dive, and simply become again a flaming body of blind feeling sleeking along in the luminous roughage of the sea's body, vanished like victory inside that insucking genesis, that roaring flamboyance, that perfect beginning and conclusion of our own.'
Modern science tells us, matter-of-factly, that the first life on our planet probably sprang from the sea. Oliver takes us slowly, but powerfully, back to our physical and psychic evolutionary beginnings. "Stroke by stroke" we remember, we feel the change in our bodies. The giving in to imagination allows the body to dominate and, through pure sensation, to become "blind feeling" as we begin to grow the "blue-gray scales." As sensation through imagination overcomes us, we give up reason, the "brittle beauty of understanding," and surrender to the "nostalgia that pleads from the very bones." As sensitive and sensitized readers we experience an epiphany: a brief but intense understanding of that "other" part of ourselves that is both natural and primitive - "that roaring flamboyance, that perfect beginning and conclusion of our own" selves.
There is little moralizing in Oliver's poetry; the experience is all. Epiphany is the aim, the pinnacle, its triumph the fleeting but healing fusion of sense and imagination. It is necessarily a selective picture that she paints but never a sentimental one. For her Nature is neither wholly benevolent nor wholly malevolent. Like the American romantics Frost and Whitman, she holds a "fundamentally Romantic position: a view of life in which Nature's capacity to teach is juxtaposed with man's ability to fathom Nature's meanings.",, Oliver follows the tradition Whitman espoused in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking": the Romantic poetic function is "peering, absorbing, translating." In her best poems there is no need for the interjection of abstract philosophy, no need to tell the reader instead of showing him. Contrasting the above poem with "May," one in which Oliver does use more philosophizing will help to make this point vividly:
May, and among the miles of leafing, blossoms storm out of the darkness wildflowers and moccasin flowers. The bees dive into them and I too, to gather their spiritual honey. Mute and meek, yet theirs is the deepest certainty that this existence too this sense of wellbeing, the flourishing of the physical body - rides near the hub of the miracle that everything is a part of, is as good as a poem or a prayer, can also make luminous any dark place on earth.9
In this poem the reader does not become the bee, as he becomes the fish in "The Sea," but can only use the bee as a point of reference or comparison. In "The Sea," the reader writhes in the growing of scales or feels the muscles constrict and fuse as the body imaginatively metamorphizes; in "May" the reader can only observe the bees in their natural activity and reason about them. This is not to say that this poem is not a notable achievement, but it fails to produce the intensity of feeling necessary for the reader to identify with the subject. Her problem, as with all poets, is to maintain an evenhandedness between imagistic description and a more detached intellectuality.
When Oliver keeps a tight reign on the tendency to philosophize and allows imagery to speak, her poems are sensual wonders. "August," the poem that opens American Primitive, is an exquisite example of her technical mastery:
When the blackberries hang swollen in the woods, in the brambles nobody owns, I spend all day among the high branches, reaching my ripped arms, thinking of nothing, cramming the black honey of summer into my mouth; all day my body accepts what it is. In the dark creeks that run by there is this thick paw of my life darting among the black bells, the leaves; there is this happy tongue.
Here the images are wholly integrated into the poet's philosophy. The swollen berries - the fat, juicy berries of life and Nature - hang high up, there for the taking by those who have the interest to search for them, the alertness to notice them and the desire to partake of them. To suck these berries is to suck the very juice of life itself. But there may be a price to pay, for the berries are up high and surrounded by thorns. Effort, even courage, is required. This poem makes it clear, however, that the reward and the risks are worth the effort. The berries become almost the sweet nectar of mythology in a poem that is suffused with the mythic and archetypal. In "August" the participant is in a type of Eden - an American Eden that is as threatening as it is promising - eating the forbid den fruit. While the immersion in sensations of the self results in the ecstatic union with nature, down on the ground a deep and mysterious sense of foreboding lurks. Things are dark and menacing. The archetypal river/water, dark and silent here, contains the "thick paw" of life. The fertile season has reached its peak and the leaves and fruits of the trees will soon fall and decay as Nature prepares for winter. For now, at this timeless moment, the tongue is hap py. In the true sense of the primitive and natural, the momentary awareness of the body is the only, the most important, reality. In this poem, as in so many other Oliver poems, the reader is a participant having not to understand but only feet.
The celebration of sensation, the feeling of oneness with nature is the dominant thread that ties all of the poems in American Primitive together. For Oliver it is through nature that we, if only momentarily, are able to rise above the concerns of the civilized world and are thus able to live in it. It is Nature that reminds us of our physical and spiritual uniqueness and, paradoxically, sameness. It is through Nature that we may remember that "everything touches everything."10
These are feelings rather than lessons, and Oliver seeks to guide rather than instruct. She seeks to convey a sense of truth, or at least a part of it, that has been lost: that we are Natural beings and to lose this part of ourselves may be to lose ourselves. This truth needs little adornment, in her poetry there are no thick layers of rhetoric to cut through. One need only be sensitive to touch, taste, sight, smell, sound. For Oliver there are no separate realms of awareness, no distinct intellectual and physical worlds. As she says in "Morning at Great Fond,"" through Nature "you're healed from the night, your heart wants more, you're ready to rise and look! to hurry anywhere! to believe in everything."
Review of American Primitive, by Mary Oliver, Publisher's Weekly 17 (July 1983): 82.
I "For the Man Cutting Grass," From "Poetry: A Symposium," Georgia Review 35 (1981): 732-33.
4 Ibid. 733.
7 Mary Oliver, American Primitive, (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1983) 69.
1 Clark Griffiths, "Frost and the American View of Nature," American Quarterly 20 (1968): 22.
9 American Primitive, 53.
10 Ibid. 22.
11 Ibid. 46.
The poems "The Sea," "May," and "August" are reprinted by permission of the Atlantic Monthly Press, from American Primitive, @ 1985 by Mary Oliver.