upstream

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver 

I'm ashamed to say I'm not well versed in poetry. When I was younger I might have even said I didn't like poetry and while that has certainly changed, I'm still quite wary, quite picky about when and who I'll read. Mary Oliver, however, has entered my inner circle as one of the few poets I'll automatically read. When Penguin Press offered her new book  - released today - up for review, I immediately requested it with barely a glance.

So I was slightly surprised to find that this isn't a collection of poems but, rather, of essays, many of which have been previously published (and also included in previous collections of poetry). Not that there's a vast difference between her poems and her essays- the essays here often read as condensed poetry. This is a compliment to be sure - lyrical, eloquent, threaded with vulnerability and strength and beauty, still - but it means that the essays can seem dense. This means one must be in the right mood for such poetic thoughts. 

photograph by Angel Valentin

photograph by Angel Valentin

And in a few cases here, I wasn't quite so ready. There's a section of essays centered around a few favourite poets and essayists - Emerson, Wordsworth, Whitman, Poe. Though they all contained interesting tidbits and themes and I read the Emerson and Poe essays all the way through in part because although I've appreciated all of them, Emerson and Poe are my favoured, I found myself skimming through some of the others. This was about mid-way through the book and I must admit I considered while not exactly abandoning the collection but perhaps coming back to it later, I'm pleased I didn't. 

This is primarily because what followed was one of my favourite essays/stories/memoir-ish pieces I've ever read, Bird. One December morning, Oliver brought home a young, badly injured black-backed gull from the beach. Once they determined the extent of his injuries, they didn't expect him to live long but he did, for a while at least. They continued to feed and care for him, even taking him to particular areas/views around the house simply because he made noises that sounded like he was excited and enjoying himself, so long as he seemed to be happy and not in pain. 

"But the rough-and-tumble work of dying was going on, even in the quiet body. The middle of February passed. When I picked him up the muscles along the breast were so thin I feared for the tender skin lying across the crest of the bone. And still the eyes were full of the spices of amusement.

He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not a fact; this is the other part of knowing something, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief. Imagine lifting the lid from a jar and finding it filled not with darkness but with light. Bird was like that. Startling, elegant, alive."

The images Oliver shares and the tender, heart-thrashing she must have felt from the moment she picked the bird up and brought it home will stay with me for a long time. 

Some other favourite bits from the collection:

"The house is hard cold. Winter walks up and down the town, swinging his censer, but no smoke or sweetness comes from it, only the sour, metallic frankness of salt and snow. I dress in the dark and hurry out."    

"And that I did not give to anyone the responsibility for my life. It is mine. I made it. And can do what I want with it. Live it. Give it back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes."