Review: Nature, Peace and Death in Mary Oliver’s “Felicity”

NATALIE PATTERSON

Felicity
By Mary Oliver
Published 2015

Reading “Felicity”, it’s easy to remember that Mary Oliver has won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry.  Elusive and mysterious, notoriously private Oliver is known for her meditations on the landscapes and life of the natural world.  

Now eighty-two, she writes as one with sage wisdom to impart upon the young.  She takes counsel from flowers who are peaceful, existing within the moment (“Roses”), and expresses a deep, calm love of spending time in the solace of nature (“Walking to Indian River”).  Frequently quoting the Muslim poet and mystic Rumi, she sometimes acts as if she is a teacher, her readers the students.  Her poetry conveys an attitude of patience in becoming, of openness in love, of oneness with the trees and animals.  Occasionally more abstract than her earlier work suggests, in “Felicity” she encompasses the archetype of quotable poet in resonant lines that are striking in their profound simplicity: “There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled” (“Moments”) and “Everything that was broken / has forgotten its brokenness” (“Everything That was Broken”).

In “Felicity”, Oliver shows her age–but not in a bad way.  She has boundless reverence for the years she has lived, and expresses the spirituality and physicality of romantic love fearlessly and openly.  Also characteristic of Oliver is her inquiring nature:  she asks, “Yes, I know, God’s silence never breaks, but is / that really a problem?” (“Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way”).

However, her advancing age is most apparent in the poems over which the shadow of death subtly lingers.  But, as she reveals in “That Tall Distance,” she is curious, looking at death the way she might just as easily consider an ethereal garden or mystifying vista.  She describes clouds, goldfinches, streams and lambs, and “after all of that / the tall distance is what I think of now.”  She is also undaunted in her direct address to “Mr. Death” in “I Am Pleased to Tell You”.  When she asks difficult, frightening questions of her readers, she is so calm and thoughtful, musing over possibility, that even the prospect of death seems smaller, more peaceful.

Ultimately, Oliver writes as if she knows the secrets of human existence, and communicates them in thought-provoking, joyful and questioning verse.  In many ways, her poetry is just as mysterious as her life–but perhaps the mystery is ours to uncover, as “The World I Live In” suggests: “You wouldn’t believe what once or / twice I have seen. I’ll just / tell you this: / only if there are angels in your head will you / ever, possibly, see one.”

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