Saturday, July 2, 2011

Mary Oliver: "Black Oaks"

In this collection I’ve really enjoyed the nature theme so far and the changes Oliver rings on it. Often it’s very difficult to make nature poems work as they easily become cliché, but Oliver is adept enough to use a quiet, understated simplicity to great advantage in these poems. This means that the ending of most of them packs more punch because they’ve appeared straightforward on the surface, but then you go back and reassess them again and realise they aren’t simple at all. Black Oaks is a particularly good example of this sort of simple beginning building up to a strong close. It’s online at this link:

Okay, not one can write a symphony, or a dictionary,
or even a letter to an old friend, full of remembrance
and comfort.

“Okay” at the beginning sets up a colloquial conversational tone but she keeps it unselfconscious as the poem progresses, so for me this works quite well.
I expected “not” to be “no” and at first thought it might be a typo but since its repeated in the next strophe too it’s obviously a deliberate choice. Again something small and unexpected that adds to the layers of meaning. The narrator could be referring to either the tree of the title, or people in general; either one is a reading that works at this point.

Not one can manage a single sound, though the bluejays
carp and whistle all day in the branches, without
the push of the wind

Here it becomes clearer that it is the trees of the title that are being referred to, but the subtle personification persists, carrying over from the human actions described in the first strophe.

But to tell the truth after a while I’m pale with longing
for their thick bodies ruckled with lichen

and you can’t keep me from the woods, from the tonnage
of their shoulders, and their shining green hair.

Today is a day like any other: twenty-four hours, a
little sunshine, a little rain.

Now the distinction between tree and personality is being clarified, though the shift back to describing the woods as having shoulders and hair suggests that for the narrator some level of connection or identification persists even though she knows the woods are not people. And ruckled--what a wonderful word :) Hence, the mundane statement “today is a day like any other” is a little jolting at first, I think intentionally so, preparing the reader for the far bigger jolt that is coming.

Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from
one boot to another—why don’t you get going?

For there I am, in the mossy shadows, under the trees.

This quirky personification of ambition as a rather nervous person is possibly my favourite part of the poem. We’ve been prepared for it by the personification that’s come before, which has been grounded in the link between the narrator and the woods, so for me this shift although sudden, does actually work. And again we move back to a simple statement, of what the narrator is doing in that moment, which is nothing much at all, on the surface.

And to tell the truth I don’t want to let go of the wrists
of idleness, I don’t want to sell my life for money,
I don’t even want to come in out of the rain.

Here we have a wonderfully defiant conclusion, with the narrator claiming her right to be idle if she so chooses, because she isn’t interested in the values represented by ambition and feels she learns more from the woods. At the same time it turns conventional wisdom on its head. Traditionally, sensible people ‘know enough to come in out of the rain’. This poem leaves us wondering, who has more knowledge of what really matters? The 9 to 5 worker who never stands in the rain, or the poet who won’t come in because they want to experience that moment for what it is?

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