[(essay date 1991) In the following essay, Mellard provides detailed analyses of “August,” “Lightning,” and “Fall Song” from American Primitive. She shows how Oliver deployed an “iconographic” style, using spare images to suggest larger meanings. In these poems, Mellard contends, human nature is embodied and elemental, a mystical experience that remains close to the natural world.]
Mary Oliver, winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, has already been the subject of a number of studies. It seems clear that she takes as her dominant poetic theme the human as a part of—and apart from—nature. Acknowledging a debt to poets like James Wright and Elizabeth Bishop, she is concerned in many of her poems with moments of communion, as in “The Fish” when the speaker, having eaten, exclaims, I am the fish, the fish glitters in me; we are risen, tangled together, certain to fall back to the sea;
or moments of separation, as in “The Sea”. The swimmer’s body remembers that life and cries for the lost parts of itself— fins, gills opening like flowers in the flesh
In general, critical attention has focused more on variations and subtleties of theme than on close textual analysis. David Baker, for example, posits Oliver as an individualist “in direct descent from the New England naturalists [like Thoreau],” one who sees the human world as a “parody of the divine, saving world of nature” (Baker 195).
Sandra Gilbert, on the other hand, sees Oliver as more akin to D. H. Lawrence, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop in celebrating “the intransigent otherness of birds, beasts, and flowers … in order to learn the lessons of survival” (Gilbert 113), as the speaker in “A Poem for the Blue Heron” does. The heron, facing the “cold ponds / of November,” makes his decision and … lifts his long wings leisurely and rows forward into flight
toward “a cave he can hide in … deciding not to die, after all.” The speaker metaphorically follows suit, making “fire after fire after fire.” Gilbert writes,
The pieces that impress me … are the ones in which … she [Oliver] meditates on the alternative consciousness, the being in a perpetual present, that might liberate the lives of plants and animals from what human beings experience as the burden of the past.(114)
Other critics see Oliver as a visionary poet in the romantic tradition of Wordsworth-Keats-Yeats-Stevens, though, as Janet McNew points out, with important gender-related differences. Unlike those poets who saw man’s archetypal relation to nature as one of boundaries and polarities, (self-nature, soul-body, male-female, etc.), viewed through the “sexual dynamic” of a male speaker analyzing his relation to a “mute and female nature” (McNew 60), Oliver’s vision, says McNew, is of herself as “part of a natural vastness that subsumes her human individuality” through a “visionary physical immersion” (McNew 66). In “Crossing the Swamp”, for example, the speaker is immersed, like an embryo, in a wet thick cosmos, the center of everything,
surrounded by “dense sap, branching vines...