Tag Archives: Mary Oliver

Review of Dream Work by Mary Oliver

Review of Dream Work by Mary Oliver

I recently read the Kindle edition of this book through Prime. I read it twice, first on my vintage Kindle, then on the Kindle app on my vintage iPad. I make the font large so I don’t have to wear my reading glasses; on the iPad the formatting stayed truer.

I especially love Oliver’s nature poems, and there are many here—Wild Geese, which is one of her most famous, and lots of others which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Actually, whatever the poem is really about, she seems to put some flora and fauna in it.

At first I wasn’t sure the poems resonated with me, but as I progressed, I liked them better and better. I suspect that I will love them all better through repeated readings.Dream Work

The book is divided into two sections, and I haven’t figured out why yet.

One sinister poem titled “Rage” seems to refer to a father raping a child. It felt autobiographical, so I googled “Was Mary Oliver raped?” and found out she indeed was raped as a child. Another poem, “A Visitor,” describes a visit from a father who was once feared and avoided, but who is now “pathetic and hollow. . . I saw what love might have done/ had we loved in time.”


Another poem references Beethoven; another, Schumann. Several reference native Americans.

“Members of the Tribe” seems to be about suicide.

My favorite poem in the book is “Banyan,” a fantasy poem:

Something screamed
from the fringes of the swamp.
It was Banyan,
the old merchant.

It was the hundred-legged
tree, walking again.

The cattle egrets
flew out into the sunlight
like so many pieces of white ribbon.

The watersnakes slipped down the banks
like green hooks and floated away.

Banyan groaned.
A knee in the east corner buckled,

a gray shin rose, and the root,
wet and hairy,
sank back in, a little closer.

Then a voice like a howling wind deep in the leaves said:
I’ll tell you a story
about a seed.

About a seed flying into a tree and eating it
little by little.
About a small tree that becomes a huge tree
and wants to travel.

Listen, said the voice.
This is your dream.

I’m only stopping here for a little while.
Don’t be afraid.

I love “the hundred-legged tree” and the description of the egrets flying and the watersnakes slipping down like green hooks. Why is the banyan a merchant?

I like this book, but not as much as Devotions.

Want to learn more about Mary Oliver? Read Maria Shriver’s interview.

Creative Juice #160

Creative Juice #160

A feast for the eyes, a banquet for the heart.

Creative Juice #127

Creative Juice #127

Somehow I got out of sequence. This should have been last week’s collection. Somehow I misplaced it after I found the Grant Snider piece. . .

Creative Juice #126

Creative Juice #126

Oops! I neglected to post some Creative Juice last Friday. I hope this wonderful batch more than makes up for it.

Creative Juice #125

Creative Juice #125

Stuff to make, thoughts to ponder.

RIP: Mary Oliver


September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019

My heart is heavy. One of America’s greatest poets.

For more about Mary Oliver, click here. And here.

Review of Devotions by Mary Oliver

Review of Devotions by Mary Oliver

I’ve often heard people mention Mary Oliver as one of their favorite poets. I’ve always felt I had a distant connection to her since she was on staff at Bennington College when my oldest daughter was a student there.

I’ve occasionally read some of her poems, and I decided I needed one of her books. I chose Devotions because it is a collection that spans her lifetime, with selections from her first book (published in 1963 when she was 28 years old) through her most recent (2015).

The book is arranged in reverse chronological order, starting with the newer poems and ending with the oldest. The more recent work is polished and smooth, a delight to read out loud or silently. As I made my way toward the end, the poems seemed rawer, though no less delightful or skillful. Many poems made me stop to savor the images and emotions; some of the older poems required a second or third reading for me to understand.


Oliver was born on September 10, 1935. She grew up in Ohio and started writing poetry when she was 14 years old. Her collection American Primitive won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. Her New and Selected Poems (1992) won the National Book Award. She and her partner of more than 40 years, photographer Molly Malone Cook, lived much of their life together (before Cook’s passing) in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Oliver now lives in Florida.

A daily walker, Oliver most frequently writes about nature, but also about God and about the human experience.


Five poems in this book especially spoke to me.

“Six Recognitions of the Lord” describes six diverse times of meditation. Nature appears repeatedly, as God’s creation is an avenue that draws Oliver’s heart to God. But she also acknowledges the Spirit of God within her, and the darkness of distance from God.

Six Recognitions of the Lord (excerpt)
by Mary Oliver

Lord God, mercy is in your hands, pour
me a little. And tenderness too. My
need is great. Beauty walks so freely
and with such gentleness. Impatience puts
a halter on my face and I run away over
the green fields wanting your voice, your
tenderness, but having to do with only
the sweet grasses of the fields against
my body. When I first found you I was
filled with light, now the darkness grows
and it is filled with crooked things, bitter
and weak, each one bearing my name.

Oliver is a master of word choice. In the poem “Some Herons,” she uses the characterizations of preacher and poet to differentiate between two birds when she could have used simply blue and white. Hunched in the white gown of his wings so accurately paints the heron’s position. The description of the water as if it were fabric makes me nod with recognition. Splashed upward, in a small, quick flower, by the life beneath it is so much more vivid than, say, “the surface was disturbed by the fish below.” His skirts up around his knees makes me smile as I picture the blue heron’s awkward landing. And I can see the white heron’s annoyed expression.

In her poem “A Meeting,” she never uses the words deer, doe, or fawn, yet, from the description of the vigorous licking the mother gives her offspring, the reader knows what species just gave birth in the forest swamp, though Oliver calls the creatures woman and child.

In “Music Lessons,” Oliver describes a time that the teacher took the piano bench and played while the student listened; how the teacher became the music and how the student became aware of music’s transformative power.

I love this rejection of the bustle of twenty-first-century existence:


The Old Poets of China
by Mary Oliver

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

Hmm. This reminds me of the bird in “Some Herons” which was referred to as an old Chinese poet.

Devotions: the Selected Poems of Mary Oliver is filled with beauty, with fresh air, with lyrical appreciation, with uplifting meditations, and also with pain, doubt, and questions. Oliver is one of the greatest American poets, and I am happy to have this volume in my collection.

O is for Oliver


Mary Oliver, that is. A prolific poet, she is most inspired by nature, and walks daily for inspiration. 82 years old, she is still writing.

Insights from Mary Oliver:

  • Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that.

  • I had a very dysfunctional family, and a very hard childhood. So I made a world out of words. And it was my salvation.

  • I consider myself a kind of a reporter—one who uses words that are more like music and that have a choreography. I never think of myself as a poet; I just get up and write.

  • I love the line of Flaubert about observing things very intensely. I think our duty as writers begins not with our feelings, but with the powers of observing. [Gustave Flaubert— ‘Talent is a long patience, and originality an effort of will and intense observation.’]

  • It’s very important to write things down instantly, or you can lose the way you were thinking out a line. I have a rule that if I wake up at 3 in the morning and think of something, I write it down.

  • If I’ve done my work well, I vanish completely from the scene. I believe it is invasive of the work when you know too much about the writer.

  • I have a notebook with me all the time, and I begin scribbling a few words. When things are going well, the walk does not get anywhere; I finally just stop and write.

  • Writers sometimes give up what is most strange and wonderful about their writing—soften their roughest edges—to accommodate themselves toward a group response.

  • I believe art is utterly important. It is one of the things that could save us.


To learn more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her poems, see her page on the Poetry Foundation website