Eighty-one-year-old Mary Oliver is widely acclaimed for her wise, lyrical poetry that presents life as a spiritual pilgrimage. Her latest book, a collection of essays, celebrates nature and literature as sources of hope, and points to the power of quiet acts such as taking a slow walk in the woods or spending hours with a book. As fans of Oliver’s work already know, however, she sees such acts as far more than movements of serenity or escape. The very title of her new book, Upstream, alludes to resistance—and the purposeful boldness of her vision should not be missed.
Upstream is, at its core, an audacious inquisition into the puzzling “otherness” of the world—the sights, situations, and sensations that stir the soul. Rather than step away from that which mystifies, Oliver finds deep virtue in “standing within this otherness.” Her poetry is keenly inquisitive in a similar manner, but the longer form’s structure gives her more space to ponder the particular autobiographical experiences and literary heroes that have shaped her personal journey and creative work.
Whether Oliver is paying tribute to classic authors—such as Whitman, Emerson, Wordsworth, and Poe—or detailing the behaviors of creatures big and small, she is dedicated to truthfully unearthing both the goodness and cruelty at play. In the “metaphysical gloom” of Poe’s stories, for example, she does not merely see pure despair, but a man grappling with two gifts every person has been given: “the ability to love and the ability to ask questions.” In the playful resilience of a dying gull under her care, she sees a “gorgeous curiosity,” and it’s a description that fits well with Oliver’s own worldview. Upstream is a gorgeously written, tenderly curious collection that captures a seasoned poet’s devotion to “the beauty and the mystery of the world” and its remarkable ability to “redignify the worst stung heart.” (Banner review)