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This book served as an introductory leap into the marvelous works of Mary Oliver for me. I've never been taken with a book of poetry like this - straddled in mellow verses, swayed to the rhythm, calmed by sleepy melodies that churn out of her affair with nature. I've rediscovered my love for Whitman and the romantics.
I first heard of Mary Oliver on a poetry writing course. Some there regarded her as too positive, even to the extent of being mawkish. But equally many others loved her work. I often encountered her poems especially "Wild Geese" and "The Journey" in personal development workshops. Therapists sometimes use those poems even now as an encouragement for clients.
This immediately begs a question about Mary Oliver's appeal. When she died (a few months ago from the time of writing this) in the poetry world there was an assessment of her work, an it was that there is enough in her best writings that deserves being remembered. It's probably the same for all poets whose work survives. Of course Mary Oliver has an appeal outside the literary world as well as fans inside it.
This collection is important in Mary Oliver's oeuvre not least because it is the one that holds the two above mentioned poems. They address a fundamental question that most of us probably face at one time or another: how to live one's life. "Wild Geese" especially suggests that answers lie not in trying to be perfect, but to be oneself, which is perhaps summed up by the following words in "Wild Geese":
"... let the soft animal of your body love what it loves."
Yet, in the same poem, she also attests that we also live in a greater context which she calls "the family of things."
This poems and others attest to a form of spirituality. But Oliver is perhaps someone who would speak for those who describe themselves as "spiritual not religious." In "Dream Work" there are plenty of other themes that she explores including the music of Robert Schumann, the natural world of flowers and even fishing, animals as well as the late poet Stanley Kunitz. They are poems that praise and love the world, but Oliver is aware there are other sides to it as she shows in a poem about rage, and in a poem where she states how she struggled to lover her life and was advised by her imagination not to love it too much. This I think negates the accusations of her being mawkish.
It is easy to see the consolation Oliver offers. There is also a visionary depth to her imagination which is on full display in this book which is conveyed in a direct language. This book is one of her best.