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Continuing an artistic renaissance that began with A Thousand Mornings (2012), Mary Oliver’s latest poetry collection, Blue Horses, finds her exploring a new home and rediscovering love. Oliver has long been America’s bestselling poet, and these latest conversational poems show why you can find her work on shelves across the United States. If there is a statement of purpose for Blue Horses, it arrives early in the book with “I Don’t Want to be Demure or Respectable,” in which the poet writes:
I was that way, asleep, for years.
That way, you forget too many important things.
How the little stones, even if you can’t hear them,
How the river can’t wait to get to the ocean and
What traveling is that!
It is a joy to imagine such distances.
Some critics cast Oliver as demure or preachy, and perhaps there was evidence for those claims in her earlier works. However, with A Thousand Mornings, she stepped away from that position into generous spiritual and personal musings, a trend she continues with this most recent book.
Her bravery to “imagine such distances” yields pleasant work in Blue Horses. Forging fresh territory for the poet, she explores living in a sunnier region. In “Blueberries,” the speaker says, “I’m living in a warm place now, where you can purchase fresh blueberries all year long… So, general speaking, I’m very satisfied.” Yet, a change of scenery has both excitements and challenges. For example, “Mangroves” talks about leaving the black oaks of the northeast for the tropics and admits “affinity, that does take some time.” Readers looking for pieces about New England or Oliver’s now folkloric Black Pond will be disappointed by these poems, but they show progress for the poet, who gains inspiration from whatever natural surrounding she encounters, familiar or not.
Oliver also uses her this book to survey a wide spectrum of spirituality and art, including eastern sensual poetry (“Rumi”), the writings of Lucretius (“After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond”), zodiac signs (which she uses as a jumping-off point to explore her battle with cancer in “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac”), and Hinduism (“To Shiva,” another sharply observed poem about mortality). “First Yoga Lesson” is the best poem of this ilk because it shows the poet confronting her spiritual interests and aging body with humor:
“Be a lotus in the pond,” she said, “opening
slowly, no single energy tugging
against another but peacefully,
I couldn’t even touch my toes.
“Feel your quadriceps stretching?” she asked.
Well, something was certainly stretching.
Standing impressively upright, she
raised one leg and placed it against
the other, then lifted her arms and
shook her hands like leaves. “Be a tree,” she said.
I lay on the floor, exhausted.
But to be a lotus in the pond
opening slowly, and very slowly rising—
that I could do.
The speaker in the poem has limitations, but she rejoices in those limitations and is willing to find the strange comedy that comes with loss and aging. Most refreshing, however, is that the poem avoids making any “wise” declarations. Because it is grounded in the personal rather than the didactic, it works as an approachable observation of being elderly.
However charming these poems may be, the best work addresses romance. In a trio of pieces, “Little Lord Love,” “Little Crazy Love Song,” and “I Woke,” Oliver investigates falling in a love again late in life. These poems brim with excitement, which is particularly interesting from a poet like Oliver, whose books have never focused on sexuality. While there are some drawbacks to being old and in love—she laments, “why did you wait until now?” in “Little Lord Love”—most of the poems revel in happiness. “Little Crazy Love Song” finds the speaker restlessly waiting for her lover and she says, “softly my right hand fondles my left hand / as though it were you.” It’s a sexy moment—surprisingly so for an Oliver poem. “I Woke” also has a restless sensuality; in the piece, the speaker wakes in the night and watches her lover sleeping, as she says, “thinking I was intruding, / yet wanting to see / the most beautiful thing // that has ever been in my house.” This intimate moment feels like spying on the speaker, but Oliver is so excited to share beauty with the reader, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in her enthusiasm.
With each of her volumes in the past five years, Mary Oliver has grown more personal and transparent, which has benefited her work. Her recent poems are less concerned with her critics and more concerned with celebrating the diverse sensual and spiritual pleasures life can offer. Blue Horses is a sweet, friendly collection and the kind of book that will continue to endear Oliver to readers.
By Mary Oliver
Hardcover, 9781594204791, 96 pp.