The Cortland Review


Kaydi Johnson
Kaydi Johnson discusses Greta Garbo�s legs, dirty rooms, and carpal tunnel syndrome with Renee Bandazian.

Robert Danberg
Robert Danberg reviews the words of experience and wisdom in Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver.

John Kinsella
A Brief Tour of the Cocos Atoll: The next installment in John Kinsella�s fast paced and exclusive autobiography series.

Robert Danberg

Robert Danberg has been published in Ploughshares, Kerem, and Global City Review. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife, Mary Biggs, and his son Rubin. He teaches at Cornell University.
Robert Danberg - Book Review


Winter Hours
by Mary Oliver

Houghton Mifflin, 2000
Paper, 144 pages

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Critiquing Mary Oliver's Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems and Poems is a difficult task. "Reader," she offers in the foreword's first sentence, "you may call what follows a collection of essays," and she cites Samuel Johnson: "I don't mean his persuasions and logics, but his ruminations and conversations," and asks us to consider these pieces "parts of a conversation or a long and slowly arriving letter—somewhat disorderly, natural in expression, and happily unfinished." And for those who balk at her approach, she is "loyal to the experiences of [her] own life and not, as is required in the more designed arts, to the needs of the line or the paragraph." She writes, she says "out of meditation and memory," not "out of imagination and invention." What follows is a journal of meditations, a kind of daybook roughed into order, with a section of critical pieces based on talks given to writing classes bracketed by a mixed bag of prose poems and personal essays that blend anecdote with broad philosophical speculations. It's a fan's book, along the lines of one of those volumes that follow a hit independent film, the auteur's filming diary, along with shooting script, sketches and pictures from the set.

The book's backbone is its theme: the paradox that sets nature and mystical inspiration against the civilizing forces of craft and discipline. It's a paradox that restates itself differently in every piece of the book, whether the subject is poetry or, as in the book's first essay, in the contrast between two "Makers," to use the old Scot word for poet. One is "The Young Builder," an instinctive and skilled carpenter who is a passionate writer, though his enthusiasm for writing outstrips his gifts. Oliver, on the other hand, is an awkward builder, but an expert poet.

The carpenter's skill is a metaphor for a kind of accomplished craft, the sort of natural simplicity and grace Oliver strives for in her life; however, she recognizes that this is different from the grace she strives for in poetry. Art emerges from a catalyzing conflict between inspiration and the necessary resistance and release craft provides.

Oliver's obsession with the paradox that the writer seeks, the almost mystical inspiration through the disciplined practice and observation is recast throughout the book, seed and meat-eater, creation and destruction, first draft and revision, procreation, destruction. In the essay "Sister Turtle," which documents Oliver's encounter with a nest of turtle eggs, she writes:

The poet Shelley believed his body would at last be the total and docile servant of his intellect if he ate nothing but leaves and fruit—and I am devoted to Shelley. But I am devoted to Nature too, and to consider Nature without this appetite—this other-creature-consuming appetite—is to look with shut eyes upon the miraculous interchange that makes things work, that causes one thing to nurture another, that creates the future out of the past. Still, in my personal life, I am often stricken with a wish to be beyond all that. I am burdened with anxiety. Anxiety for the lamb with his bitter future, anxiety for my own body, and, not least, for my own soul.

The critical sketches at the book's center meditate on the poetry of Poe, Whitman, Frost, and Hopkins as efforts to master, through formal innovation, states of rapture, ecstasy, anxiety, and despair. She writes in her essay on Poe:

...most of us have had some real enough experience with certainty.... Poe had none.... This lack disordered him. It is not a spiritual lack, but rather a lack of emotional organization, of confidence... a lack of confidence in the world entire, and its benevolent as well as malevolent possibilities.... He was, forever, reliving an inescapable, original woe.  

At the same time he was both a powerful constructor of narrative and a perfect acrobat of language.

Of Whitman, Oliver questions: "Was Whitman a mystic? For myself," she admits, "I cannot answer the question except to say that surely he was a religious poet in the same sense that Emerson was a religious man, for whom life itself was light," but she acknowledges "Whitman's persuading force, which is his sincerity; and we feel what the poem tries continually to be: the replication of a miracle."

But as Gershom Scholem observed in a different context, it's one thing to have a mystical experience, another to write it down. Likewise, it's one thing to read about one and another to have one. And, as Oliver herself writes, "The poem in which the reader does not feel himself or herself a participant is a lecture... the point is not what the poet would make of it, but what the reader would make of it."

At it's best, the work is concrete, vivid in its simplicity.

All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden I mean that for more than thirty years she had not whistled.
The Whistler

Into this Passage I dug, until my fingers felt the first of the eggs-round, slightly soft-then I began to feel more, and I began to remove them. There were twenty-seven, smaller than ping pong balls, which they somewhat resembled. They were not altogether opaque, but cast a slightly yellow interior light.
Sister Turtle

What I want to describe in my poems is the prick of the instant... when the yellow wasps comes, in Fall, to my wrist and then to my plate, to ramble at the edges of a smear of honey.
Winter Hours

But, her tendency is toward antique inversions and lines that dramatize without clarifying. "Said the poet Robert Frost..." and "I wanted to build, in the other way, with the teeth of the saw, and the explosions of the hammer, and the little shrieks of the screws winding down into their perfect nests." When she writes, "today, the honey locust blossoms, in batter, will make the finest crepes of the most common pancakes," the miraculous is lost in sentimental clich�. It's as if Oliver, in her attempt to communicate her deep connection with nature, cranks up the intensity of the language. The Mary Oliver we meet in this book is spontaneous, open, very serious and playful; the voice throughout is earnest, ardent, moral and honest, but the prose calls attention to itself, rather than to the things and experiences described.

Despite the book's suggestion that serious business is afoot—It takes eleven pages of Garamond adobe type, like rows of antique tables and chairs to reach the first essay, including four title pages, an epigram, a three page foreword, a two page table of contents, and an Other Books page almost as long as the flavor list at a Ben and Jerry's Scoop Shop—this is truly a fan's book. "I have felt all my life that I was wise, and tasteful too, to speak very little about myself—to deflect the curiosity in the personal self that descends upon writers, especially in this country and at this time," but she does believe she is at a moment in her life and career when she finds "a compelling reason to write something revealing, a little, my private and natural self...." As a Yiddish teacher I once had said of my great uncle whose second wife was an ex-nun, "He's raised Jewish children. He's entitled." So, I suppose, is Mary Oliver.



� 2002 The Cortland Review