Ohio-born Mary Oliver first won me over with her Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poetry, American Primitive. Since then her poems have repeatedly taken my breath away by saying just the right phrase, saying just what I apparently needed to hear.
And then she came back just last year with Felicity*, her 24th collection of poems.
I must admit that Felicity first struck me as rather simplistic. Oliver writes such lines as, “The cricket doesn’t wonder/if there’s a heaven/or, if there is, if there’s room for him.” I found myself reading the book, thinking, “Come on, Mary! What have you done? Where is your depth?” I was hoping she’d get the page a little dirty, a little soiled. Talk to me in an Anne Sexton confessional kind of way, about blood or sex or dying. But alas, Felicity is a collection of love poems – love for life, love for other human beings. It’s not a treatise, Sexton style, on how raw and traumatic the world is.
I am always impressed by how Oliver expresses her relationship to Nature. She never separates Nature from the sacred, but identifies them as one and the same. In Felicity, she writes about birds’ eggs and solitude, about the wisdom of roses, the felling of trees, and the healing of body and Earth. And she does include a very touching poem mourning a deceased friend.
Still, I wanted the poems of Felicity to tell me more, to go on to the next page, to be more convoluted. Then I could be preoccupied with their dissection, pulling them apart like a navel orange, savoring each piece. But that isn’t what Oliver gives me. She gives me small quiet lines devoid of all pretense. She gives me simple truths, commonplace wisdom that most of us overlook.
But that simplicity is deceptive. There is sacredness in it. More is not necessarily better. Complex language is not necessarily profound. There is insight, hope, and compassion in Oliver’s words.
So, despite my impatience and yearning for more, I had to admit that perhaps Mary Oliver was, once again, giving me exactly what I needed.
*Felicity: Poems by Mary Oliver.
81 pages, hardcover. Penguin Press, 2015.