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A Double-Edged Pen

Updated on October 19, 2014

A Double-Edged Pen


Mary Oliver

Beacon Press, 2010, $14.00 (paperback), 59 pp.

Swan, Mary Oliver’s most recent poetry collection, reminds us of what we seek most in poetry: life-truths discovered and expressed compellingly, and beauty. Swan depicts truth and beauty in a symbiotic relationship, each latent within the other. The speaker of the book’s opening poem, “What Can I Say,” intuits a sublime reality from the splendor of nature—“The leaf has a song in it…./Inside the river there is an unfinishable story …” (1). Later in the volume, Oliver reverses this approach.

let me never be afraid to use the word beautiful.

For within is the shining leaf

and the blossoms of the geranium at the window.

The ream of brand new paper just opened, white as a block of snow.

The typewriter humming ready to go.

(“Just Around the House, Early in the Morning,” 7)

Here, the speaker asserts the veracity of the idea of beauty because it produces, like Plato’s “ideas,” the comforting, grounding details of our daily lives.

In some poems, however, Oliver expresses as truths things that aren’t true at all. “In the Darkness” celebrates the speaker’s love for the stars “though we will not ever know/each others’ names” (43)—though they are separated by distance and difference. What prevents the speaker from finding the stars’ names in some chart of the night sky for backyard astronomers? This emotional fallacy derails the poem’s thematic logic at its climax. Moreover, Oliver’s compulsion to bring her truths to the reader can compromise her artistry: “Percy Wakes Me (Fourteen)” concludes, “This is a poem about Percy./This is a poem about more than Percy./Think about it” (13). Such a bald, unnecessary declaration of the poem’s intent feels like a pin popping a balloon, dispelling all the energy the poem has built.

Oliver favors simplicity and directness of syntax, diction, and structure in Swan. The theme usually moves linearly through the poem, each stanza carrying it further; traditional devices like anaphora, lists, and question-and-answer organize other poems. Yet sharp, enigmatic, even counterintuitive imagery also distinguishes Swan’s style. When Oliver describes “four small stones clearly/hugging each other” (“On the Beach”), she demands, through the sheer confidence of her description of the physically impossible, that the reader look more deeply into reality to sense the interconnection among discrete things (3).

But as with her thematics, sometimes these hallmarks of Oliver’s style work against her—as in the poem “Mist in the Morning, Nothing Around Me but Sand and Roses,” which reads in its entirety: “Was I lost? No question./Did I know where I was? Not at all./Had I ever been happier in my life? Never” (32). Brevity, normally a strength, prevents “Mist in the Morning” from feeling substantial enough for the reader to sink teeth into it; the flatness of the writing blunts the final line’s surprise and makes what could have been a pithily aphoristic poem seem like a hasty note-to-self. Swan goes overboard in the opposite direction as well when its enigmatic imagery sinks into the merely puzzling. The title poem’s description of the swan refers to “the bondage of its wings” (15), yet everything else in the poem corroborates the traditional association of flight with freedom.

A fluid, skipping rhythm prevails in Swan, apt for the joie de vivre the book propounds. Impressively, rhythm and euphony are as strong in its prose poems as in its verse. On the other hand, the dactyls in the line “Not for me does it rise and not in haste does it rise” speed up the line as it describes the sun rising “not in haste” (“It Is Early,” 17); the iambic pentameter of “Don’t mind my inexplicable delight” (24) from “Bird in the Pepper Tree” comes across, in a free verse poem, as too staid to convey “delight.”

Yehuda Amichai once wrote that he kept a book by Leah Goldberg, an Israeli poet of the previous generation, in his soldier’s pack while fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. Many readers would rank Mary Oliver among the contemporary American poets whose work they’d consider worth carrying into combat, and Swan shows why. It also shows why others would not.

Works Cited

Oliver, Mary. Swan. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010.

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    • Robert Levine profile image

      Robert Levine 4 years ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      @picarelli: Thank you, Carmella. I'll take a look at your site.

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      picarelli 4 years ago

      Hello and thank you for this wonderful place to express oneself. My name is Carmella Opie. I use the pen name of Helen Nastri. I have a blog for poetry, where I have entered several of my poems to get the blog started. I hope to intice other poets to enter their works so that we can share those readings with others.

      I read your articles and enjoyed them immensly and will continue to follow your site.