Big-hearted poems: A review of Felicity by Mary Oliver

Things! Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful fire! More room in your heart for love, for the trees! For the birds who own nothing — the reason they can fly.
//From the poem Storage//

Reading Mary Oliver’s poetry reminds me of plunging into a cold, clear river. Thinking about it is daunting because you know that at first it will sting and steal your breath. But once you brave jumping into the water and your limbs warm up, the world comes into bright focus. As you float and look at the world beyond the shore, you’re struck by all the little details you’d missed before. The images Oliver evokes are like this. They’re tiny snippets of everyday life you’ve seen a million times but that feel new because you’re more awake than you’ve been in a long time.

In her newest collection called Felicity, Oliver continues her tradition of writing poems that glow with gratitude for the minutiae most of us ignore. She writes about these little moments because they’re accessible to her and to all of us. She wants us to join her, as if for the the first time, in noticing how wonderful the world is and how much warmth there is in a slip of sunlight.

The mangroves, as always, are standing in their
beloved water,
their new leaves very small and tender and pale.
And, look! the way the rising sun
strikes them,
they could be flowers
opening!

//From the poem Walking to Indian River//

The longest section of this small collection is called Love. In 2013, Oliver’s long time partner Molly Malone Cook passed away but she is present in almost every line of Felicity.

The leaves are all in motion now
the way a young boy rows and rows
in his wooden boat, just to get anywhere. Late, late,
but now lovely and lovelier. And the two of us
together — a part of it.

// From the poem Late Spring//

It’s impossible to not feel Oliver’s sense of loss as she recounts and then preserves-by-poem the tiny, precious moments spent with her lover in what reads like a past life. Somehow these poems manage to be nostalgic and still deeply grounded in the world. They feel like little dreams that Oliver has managed to catch and hold.

I don’t want to lose a single thread
from the intricate brocade of this happiness. I want
to remember everything.
Which is why I’m lying awake, sleepy but not
sleepy enough to give it up.
Just now, a moment from years ago: the early
morning light, the deft, sweet gesture of your hand

reaching for me.

//From the poem I Don’t Want to Lose//

One of Oliver’s greatest achievements in Felicity is that she manages to capture exuberant joy and gratitude without sounding sappy or like a new age guru. The poems are straightforward and unpretentious. They find magic in the simple joys of a life lived with awareness and kindness. Take, for example, how Oliver considers a cricket:

The cricket doesn’t wonder
if there’s a heaven
or, if there is, if there’s room for him.

It’s fall. Romance is over. Still, he sings.

If he can, he enters a house
through the tiniest crack under the door.
Then the house grows colder.

He sings slower and slower. Then, nothing.

This must mean something. I don’t know what. But
certainly it doesn’t mean
he hasn’t been an excellent cricket
all his life.

// From the poem Nothing Is Too Small Not To Be Wondered About//

Doesn’t your heart swell a little after reading that?

After finishing the book and then reading it again, in addition to feeling happy for this cricket, I also experienced a deep and abiding love for trees, water, birds, dolphins and all the other strange and wonderful things that make up our world.

Felicity is not a big volume, but it’s enveloping. After I put it down I felt more than ever how quickly time moves and how important it is to look up and open my heart just a little more.

I’m writing this from a high speed train to Paris. Even on the first of December, and even with all the grief in the world, the countryside is a deep felty green punctuated by speckles of bright white cows.

Can you see them?

Thanks to The Penguin Group who gave me a review copy of this book.

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