For nearly 50 years, Mary Oliver has been falling in love with the world and writing poems that invite readers to fall in love right along with her. Evidence, the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s 19th book of poetry, offers a bountiful collection of 46 new poems, many of which explore terrain featured in her earlier books: the beauty of nature, the miracle of life and the search for a language capable of communicating these mysteries. However, in this volume, as the title would suggest, the poet pays particular attention to matters of meaning and attempts to divine what the material world can teach us about the truths that lie beyond it.
That the world has meaning is the bedrock upon which all of Oliver’s work rests, but she has long been hesitant to claim certain knowledge of what that meaning might be: “Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous/ to be understood.... Let me keep my distance, always/ from those who think they have the answers” (“Mysteries, Yes”). The world speaks to us, but its messages are multivalent and many. What the wolf teaches is different from the constant call of the Clarion River or the message of the moon’s quiet light. Evidence is less an argument for a system of scientific, philosophical or theological belief than a showing forth of examples, in all their splendor and particularity, of the victory of being over nothingness, of the goodness of creation and of the pulse of love that beats unceasingly at the heart of the universe.
Accordingly, one might read Evidence as a compendium of testimonials. Oliver draws on a number of genres and traditions to craft a varied collection of poems that function as prayers, psalms, paeans and parables. Included among these are three long pieces that read almost as homilies, openly engaging ultimate questions (“To Begin With, the Sweet Grass,” “Evidence” and “At the River Clarion”). Each of these poems, delivered in a voice that conveys both authority and wonderment reminiscent of Oliver’s poetic mentor, Walt Whitman, attempts to marry perception with understanding, to connect what we love with what we believe. The third piece in this trilogy addresses the mystery that lies at the center of her quest for evidence—the presence of God. The voice of the river speaks to the poet—in much the same way the sea whispers to Whitman the secret linkage of love and death in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”—teaching her hard truths about God: “If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck./ He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke.” God is no more containable nor tame than the creation: “Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep going.” Oliver’s poem, for all of its “doubts” and “hesitations,” finally concludes with an act of faith: “I pray for the desperate earth/ I pray for the desperate world.”
Indeed, Evidence is full of such acts and affirmations of faith, some of them explicitly Christian. In “Spring” the poet describes the ever-renewing season as a manifestation of Christ, “the Lord” who “was once young/ and will never in fact be old./ ...who goes off/ down the green path,/ carrying his sandals and singing?” Similarly, in the Lenten poem, “First Days in San Miguel de Allende,” the speaker marvels at the passion of Mexican Catholics for “the flagellated Christ,” whom they carry along “the sun flashed road” and acknowledges the thirst for God she shares with them. More often than not, however, Oliver looks beyond the language and traditions of any particular institutional religion for evidence of God, including these as part of a broader, more universal search.
Evidence is as much about the play of language as it is about the work of seeking truth. Keenly aware of the voices from the past that have shaped her own, Oliver frequently nods to her predecessors (most often Wordsworth and Frost, as well as Whitman). In “A Lesson from James Wright,” she invokes the name of another poetic mentor:
If James Wright could put in his book of poems a blank page dedicated to “the Horse David Who Ate One of My Poems,” I am ready to follow him along the sweet path he cut through the dryness and suggest that you sit now very quietly in some lovely wild place, and listen to the silence.
could put in his book of poems
a blank page
dedicated to “the Horse David
Who Ate One of My Poems,” I am
to follow him along
the sweet path he cut
through the dryness
and suggest that you sit now
in some lovely wild place, and listen
to the silence.
Wright suggests that his missing poem is no less a poem for having been eaten, and offers his dedication, conveying the story of the poem’s disappearance as a worthy substitute. Oliver affirms this equivalence and goes a step further, asserting that the inexpressible silence that lies outside her book of poems constitutes poetry as well, a poetry composed not of words but of the world’s own music. This is the poem spoken, paradoxically, by the speechless wolf, the River Clarion, the shining moon. Here she replicates Wright’s charming literary jest with absolute seriousness. At the conclusion of the poem she states simply, unabashedly, confidently: “And I say that this, too/ is a poem.”
Well into her sixth decade of writing, Oliver is still stretching the boundaries of the art she has dedicated a lifetime to learning and of the craft she strives to master. Evidence attests to an artist operating at the height of her powers. Like the green earth she has praised for most of her 74 years, Mary Oliver continues to break into blossom.