Dream Work by Mary Oliver (Atlantic Monthly: $14.95, hardcover; $8.95, paperback)
In the opening poem of “Dream Work,” Mary Oliver writes of small fish escaping a “hopeless future”: “And probably,/if they don’t waste time/looking for an easier world,/they can do it.” This sets the tone for a book of poetry that takes on the least-easy world and succeeds in affirming it: the labor of a human being to understand both the wonder and the pain of nature. Nature, here, includes the soul, the tension between living and dying, between being an individual and also being one with all other creatures.
“Dream Work” is made up of poems that fulfill the demand of lyric poetry by being short, passionate, charged with emotion and its necessary companion, thought. Originally, Greek lyric poe1953659168by a lyre. The music in Oliver’s writing is unmistakable. Her poetry can be read as the best of the real lyrics we have these days, and it’s no surprise that she’s already won a Pulitzer Prize for it, as well as many other honors. It carries the energy of the ancient poetic tradition into our time. Even a reader who cares nothing about such definitions will feel blessed, intuitively, by the ancestral resonances in Oliver’s clear, contemporary music.
Within the contemporary--personality, immediately observed turtles, sharks, ocean, trees--the ageless questions of separation of self from nature and paradoxical oneness with it are asked. Life is dangerous and equally beautiful: Of black snakes, she says, ". . . their tongues/shook like fire/at the echoes of my body--/that column of death/plunging/through the delicate woods.” Experience is darkly gorgeous but not pretty; Oliver praises, yet understands that the ocean can drown its fishermen, that human beings also kill, insult, cause terror. These poems never shy away from the struggle inherent in existence. They recognize, too, that to bring a self to birth, fully, is a great effort: ". . . the hour of fulfillment/is buried in years of patience. . . .”
This is muscular poetry, admirable for its maturity, never pat or condescending. Oliver obviously struggles, herself, and offers her experience as a mirror of human drama without assuming any poses. Once in a while there’s the tiniest lapse into slippery romanticism, as in the final two poems, which may have been chosen to end the book on an encouraging note--as a doorway, opening, that “belongs to you and me,” or an exhortation to ask sunflowers questions because they ". . . want to be friends.” And, in spite of the thrill of the short lyric, compressed so that every word is charged with feeling and meaning, a few poems yearn to move farther. One in particular, “Robert Schumann,” hints at a much larger story than is offered to us.
But there’s no denying that “Dream Work” is an outstanding book, holding those ageless questions of self in an extraordinary balance, doing it with wonderful music that any reader, in any time, would be happy to listen to.