Wisdom From the Beasts
Mary Oliver’s newest book, The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays, will certainly please connoisseurs of her work and will likely win her new readers as well. The 35 poems and prose sketches in the collection that have been previously published present themselves as familiar friends to Oliver fans, while the 10 new selections bear the stamp of her signature style. The pleasures that await the reader just discovering the work of the Pulitzer-prize-winning poet are those delivered by her previous 18 volumes: her keen eye for telling detail, the surprise of the unexpected and, most important, the authoritative voice that portrays our world as both ordinary and enchanted, full of natural beauty and supernatural holiness, and marvelous in its many perfections.
The Truro Bear covers familiar terrain in terms of genre, yet Oliver makes use of the traditions she borrows from in interesting ways. The strain most evident in the poems is that of environmentalism, a sub-genre deeply embedded in American literary tradition. Oliver’s poems hearken back to her 19th-century mentors—particularly Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman—in their attentiveness to the natural world and what it teaches us about ourselves; and yet they are compellingly current, given the fragile condition of the earth and its creatures. Her prose sketch “At Herring Cove” begins as a description of the beach, Thoreauvian in its detailed account of the sand’s composition and the nine-foot rise and fall of the tide, but then moves in an unanticipated direction as the speaker recites a litany of unnatural articles—including beer cans, plastic bottles and hypodermic needles—that wash up on the shore. The catalogue grows more disturbing as she names not only the refuse we release into the environment but also the creatures it has killed: “Dead harbor seal, dead gull, dead merganser, dead gannet...dead dovekie in winter.” The list, with its anaphoric repetition, seems to sound the death knell of nature and identifies human waste as, at best, a contributing cause.
This characterization of animals as victims of human indifference is counterbalanced in the volume with those of a very different sort. Another generic model from which Oliver borrows is the fable. True to the ancient genre, the animals in many of these poems assume human characteristics, including the ability to speak, and each tale imparts a moral usually having to do with some human folly and its corresponding virtue. Yet, again, she does not conform strictly to the genre. The conversations are mediated by a very human poet who intervenes in the natural world, self-consciously so. As in poems by her predecessors Whitman and Frost, wherein mockingbirds and ovenbirds speak, the poet serves as interpreter, presenting what the beasts have to teach us in language the reader can understand.
The use of personification in the collection performs the important function of reminding us that human beings are but one part of a much larger community of creatures, but overuse of the technique runs the risk of sentimentality. This is most evident in the 13 pieces that feature the poet’s dog, Percy (named after the poet, Shelley) and serve as the final movement of the volume. “The Percy Poems” can be funny and sweet (particularly for dog lovers) in the dog’s-eye view of the world they present, and there is poignancy in some of them. In the fourth poem of the series, the poet, who is grieving the death of her beloved companion, finds solace in the simple actions of feeding and playing with her little dog. Clearly, he lends her life order, continuity and purpose at a moment when the reality of loss has her teetering on the brink of chaos. But the speaker’s attachment to him sometimes borders on fondness in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Poets who write poems about their children run a similar risk: a child’s amusing sayings are rarely as charming to strangers as they are to their smitten parents.
By the same token, there is a frankness and vulnerability in the voice of these poems as the speaker surrenders, unabashed, to this humble creature who enchants her. Indeed, along with listening, the attitude the poet most frequently assumes is that of kneeling before the creation in recognition of its holiness. This tenderness is reminiscent of the work of the Persian poet Rumi, another of Oliver’s masters, who once wrote: “There are a hundred ways to kiss the ground,” a line she echoes elsewhere in her poems. And kiss the ground she does, over and over again.
The most compelling pieces in Truro Bear are those wherein the poet acknowledges the dark, inscrutable qualities of the creatures she meets (“Alligator Poem” and “Swoon,” among others). These pieces provide a corrective to the domesticated view of the natural world prevalent in other poems and bear witness to nature’s power and mystery, qualities bound up with our own mortality and ineffable destiny. The speaker in “Alligator Poem” survives an encounter with death “in beautiful Florida” and describes her resurrection, amazed at “how I rose from the ground/ and saw the world as if for the second time,/ the way it really is.” This is the redemptive vision the best of Mary Oliver’s poems offer, that of a fallen world implicitly governed by an unnamed god of second chances. Like Lazarus before her, the poet experiences the inexhaustible possibilities of nature in meeting its limit head on, and lives to tell the tale he did not.