Poetry Review: Mary Oliver's A Thousand Mornings

This review was originally published by the now defunct Country Dog Review. Because I like this book so much and I think it's an important entry in Mary Oliver's canon, I'm reprinting the review as part of my National Poetry Month coverage on the blog. 

A Thousand Mornings. Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2012. 82 pp. $24.95, hardcover. Reviewed by Isaiah Vianese

Mary Oliver’s most recent collection, A Thousand Mornings, marks an important aesthetic shift for the poet. While the book is a logical addition to her impressive body of work, this newest volume finds her opening up to new references, emphasizing the humility of her speaker, and focusing on a generalized spirituality. These are all welcome changes because they allow her most recent poems to feel bare and clear in a way that we rarely see in a contemporary poetry landscape that often favors obscurity.

Much of the work in A Thousand Mornings discusses loneliness. Oliver is well into her golden years and has been open about the difficulty of losing her life partner (which is also discussed in her collection Thirst). She mines this difficult but rich material, teasing out the intricacies of loneliness, as well as the hope needed to brave being alone. For example, in “The Gardener,” she reflects:

Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Have I considered Right Action enough, have I
come to any conclusion?
Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?
Have I endured loneliness with grace?

These rhetorical questions feel broad, but Oliver knows this and turns the poem quickly by admitting, “I probably think too much.” She then moves the piece away from the speaker by ending it with the image of a gardener caring for his plants. The structure here is especially smart because it allows the poem to progress from the general concerns about aging and being alone to meta self-criticism, concluding with an image that allows the poem to feel less despairing and more comforting. Oliver does not focus on her own wisdom, but she shares a vision that soothes her, and this generosity calms the reader too.

The technique of battling despair with hopeful images permeates the book. The poet practices this technique in “After I Fall Down the Stairs at the Golden Temple,” “Good-Bye Fox,” “Poem of the One World,” and “Today,” among others. Each of these poems is remarkable, but a few poems capitalize on this structure in an especially transcendent way. The first is one of two poems about the death of the poet’s dog, Percy. In “The First Time Percy Came Back,” she shares a vision of seeing her deceased dog return to tell her about the afterlife, during which she says, “But I wasn’t thinking of that. I only / wanted to hold him.” She finds relief from this desire by ending the poem with she and the dog walking down the beach together.

Similarly, the title piece, “A Thousand Mornings,” creates emotional pressure by discussing the speaker’s insomnia, but then relieves that pressure by moving the poem from night to morning’s light. Here is the prose poem in its entirety:

All night my heart makes its way however it can over the rough ground of uncertainties, but only until night meets and then is overwhelmed by morning, the light deepening, the wind easing and just waiting, as I too wait (and when have I ever been disappointed?) for redbird to sing.

The poet uses a stream of consciousness style, allowing this one sentence to quickly move from a dark internal emotional landscape to a brighter outer landscape. In other words, the natural world pulls the speaker out of her despair by reminding her of its beauty and predictability.

Oliver is not interested in preaching or proffering a specific religion but in the comfort one can find in nature. In “I Happened to be Standing,” she acknowledges that religious distinctions do not matter because the beauty of nature is a common ground for all people:

I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
            if it isn’t prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

For her, prayer is not solely a human activity, but an action one can observe in the woods or hear in a bird’s song. While her openness about despair reaches a new transparency in this book, the return to nature feels like classic Oliver and more akin to the work in her early books that garnered critical attention. As such, this newest book feels both authentic and fresh.

The poet balances the poems about despair with a second thread of poems about the joy found in nature and art. Oliver is one of few poets who is not afraid to be ecstatic and celebratory. (Perhaps this celebration is why her books sell so well.) Just as Sharon Olds celebrates the body, Oliver praises the world around her. For example, in “Foolishness? No. It’s Not,” she defends being “half crazy with wonder” and “roaring with laughter, full of earth-praise.” She acknowledges that a reader may be critical of her worldview, and yet she extols the value of her perspective anyway.

However, the most interesting poems of this ecstatic ilk praise art as a way of reflecting gratitude. “If I Were” and “Three Things to Remember” use dancing as a metaphor for happiness, and “For I Will Consider My Dog Percy” is simultaneously a remembrance of her beloved dog, a celebration of loving pets, and an homage to a poem by Christopher Smart.

The most interesting of the art poems is “And Bob Dylan Too,” if only for its embrace of the famous folk-pop singer; the piece also works as a tribute to music and its ability to praise all of our emotions. It considers the Dylan quote, “Anything worth thinking about is worth singing about,” by cataloguing the many kinds of songs that musicians create:

Which is why we have
songs of praise, song of love, songs
            of sorrow.

Songs to the gods, who have
            so many names.

Songs the shepherds sing, on the
            lonely mountains, while the sheep
                        are honoring the grass, by eating it.

The dance-songs of the bees, to tell
            where the flowers, suddenly, in the
                        morning light, have opened.

The piece is not simply an ars poetica, but rather an appreciation of all artists and creatures (including pop stars, shepherds, and bees, among many others) that make something beautiful. The poet, charmingly, ends the piece by saying, “Thank you, thank you.”

Sometimes scholars and reviewers give Mary Oliver’s later work a hard rap, criticizing it as reductive. However, A Thousand Mornings provides a wonderful antithesis to that skepticism. The book brims with warmth, compassion, and gratitude. It is rooted in the natural world and Oliver’s rich inner emotional landscapes. It also finds her facing mortality with bravery, hoping to comfort her reader along the way. How can one not find the charm in poetry humble enough to not only face rapture and depression, but also want to help the reader brave those emotions too? A Thousand Mornings is about a poet and her readers moving away from sleepless nights to music-filled mornings together, and the book accomplishes the noble goal of providing comfort. Mary Oliver deserves every ounce of praise she can get for the collection.

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