Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Long Life: Essays and Other Writings by Mary Oliver

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 101 pages
Publisher: Da Capo Press, 2005
Price: $16.00
ISBN-10: 0306814129
ISBN-13: 978-0306814129

Like a gentle warning, one we will not heed, Mary Oliver states in her foreword that she prefers writing poetry to prose, but each has its own pleasures and manner of expression - "different paces of heartbeat." Anyone who has dabbled in both types of word-art knows how true this is; and we are grateful that Oliver is willing to adjust her heart rhythm so that our appreciative hearts may beat a little differently, too.

Long Life: Essays and Other Writings is a slim collection of prose and those few poems Oliver could not resist interspersing, collected into a love letter from Oliver to the universe, "full of radiant suggestion." Whether walking the beach, ten feet from her home, or the town dump, her praise to the beauty of the world is undaunted and lavish. There is no detail she misses, no praise unwarranted, and Oliver relishes what is life, animate, inanimate, human, canine, reptile or insect. In "Flow," she notes how we already live in paradise, and to be fully aware of it is to "have such music in one's head and body," that one must, brimming with blessing and gratitude, ask: "what is the gift I should bring the world?" For Oliver, cleary, her literary art, adding to our paradise in books.

In various essays, none very long, Oliver writes tributes to favored authors Hawthorne and Emerson, but also to her lifelong partner, Molly, in appreciation of their many differences and habits, making relationships that much richer and more rewarding. She writes of perfect days, and surely all are, in their own way. She writes of childhood huts, little places she built with open doors, so that she might sit inside and watch the wonder of the world around her (I did exactly the same). There is no place where she is unable to find beauty, and whereas Poe claimed to be able to hear the night falling, Oliver listens for the morning as it "settles upward." In her series of poems called "Sand Dabs," she collects pithy and wise sayings, the sort one would scribble on a napkin corner and keep in a wallet so as not to forget. And, even while she strives to appreciate this worldly paradise in open faith, her intellect presses her, "... forgive me, Lord, how I still, sometimes, crave understanding."

Oliver walks in the world to love it. We read her books in order to walk alongside her, love it through her eyes, her words, her spirit "settling upward," and by end of book, bask in the afterglow, recipients of the gift Oliver has given back to the world, to us.

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