Friday, January 11, 2008

Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 88 pages
Publisher: Beacon Press; 1 edition (September 3, 2007)
Price: $14.00
ISBN-10: 0807068977
ISBN-13: 978-0807068977

Live long enough, live deep enough, and you will find, as Mary Oliver does in these 43 poems collected in "Thirst," that all grief edges joy, all joy is edged by grief. It is only in a deep and courageous immersion into life, and perhaps also that place beyond life, that one can fully experience this wonder, a kind of yin and yang, the light beside the shadow, phenomenon that is living with thirst, quenched or unquenched.

There is nothing pretentious about Oliver's poetry. She is simplicity and purity itself. Thirst is how she approaches living, and now dying - in her expression of grief for the loss of her longtime life partner. This does not change how she approaches living, only intensifies it. "My work is loving the world," she writes in her opening poem, "Messenger." She observes the world, then observes herself in it, part and parcel. "Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums./Here the clam deep in the speckled sand./Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?/Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me/keep my mind on what matters,/which is my work,/which is mostly standing still and learning to be/astonished."

Much of this collection is Oliver's conversation with God having a conversation with her. Their dialogue is filtered by nature, where everyplace is a place of worship and every living thing ministering to her and she reciprocating. Her dogs speak of unconditional love and simple acceptance, an exchanged gaze with a snake is looking into the eyes of divinity (and not the darker side). Praying can be done through the weeds in a vacant lot. The words do not have to be elaborate, Oliver writes, "but a doorway/into thanks, and a silence in which/another voice may speak." This same sentiment is echoed with utmost simplicity in the poem, "The Uses of Sorrow" - that a box full of darkness given to her by another can also be a gift, a richer blessing.

When you think you cannot go closer, or dive deeper, or come up into brighter light, as Oliver writes in her poetry - you can. Just when you think Oliver cannot elicit more beauty out of the everyday word - she does. We thirst for more.

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