Mary Oliver published her first book of poems at age 28. Sixteen years and four collections later, she won a Pulitzer. Since then, she has been one of this country’s most decorated and best-selling poets.
Now 81, Oliver has published “Upstream,” a book of essays that provides deep insights and delightful anecdotes as she examines her role as a writer, reader and a spiritual seeker who constantly practices what she describes as the redemptive art of true effort.
The book opens with “Upstream,” a lyrical piece where Oliver recalls wading upstream in rippling water as a child while her parents remained downstream. As she moved further and further away, some steps easy, others requiring great effort, she realized that she enjoyed being lost because she could feel her heart opening and opening again. That opening, and “the sense of going toward the source,” informs the rest of the book and her life journey because, as she writes, “I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home.”
In the 19 essays here, many of which have been published previously, Oliver learns how to find a new home and shows how that process has unfolded, day by day, year by year, one discovery after another.
Many of those revelations come from observing the natural world — young foxes, turtles laying their eggs, a variety of fish and birds — with all its beauty, complexity and struggles. Others come from analyzing the choices, both on and off the page, of writers she considers companions and mentors.
From Wordsworth, for example, she learns that one’s true abode is made “not of beams and nails but of existence itself — is all of earth, with no door, no address separate from oceans or stars.” Emerson teaches her that the heart’s true awakening is the true work of our lives, and from Poe she gleans that while loss is inevitable and the universe is indifferent, “we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions.” Whitman, whom she calls a “friend” since childhood, shows her, among other things, that the poet’s great task is “the merging of the lonely single self with the wondrous, never-lonely entirety” and that felt experience is the only successful persuader.
Oliver incorporates all of those insights in her poetry. Yet here, the expansiveness of prose allows her to explore ideas in depth and to share imperatives, such as “You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.” The work also allows readers to see new sides of Oliver, a deeply private person, who loves woodworking and builds a hut in her yard, despite her lack of skills, and rescues an injured black-baked gull, whom she dotes on for weeks until his passing.
The richness of these essays — part revelation, part instruction — will prompt readers to dive in again and again as Oliver reveals more about what she feels is the responsibility to live, observe and write with careful attention, passion, and an abiding awareness that hope is “a fighter and a screamer.”
As she continues to travel upstream, with nature and literature as her guides, she shows readers how they too can forge their own path and “look past reason, past the provable, in other directions.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.
By Mary Oliver
Penguin Press. 178 pp. $26