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 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.

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.

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:

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.

Writer and reader. Director of UX for Store Management at Shopify. Formerly designed with words at Facebook. Based in Toronto.

Writer and reader. Director of UX for Store Management at Shopify. Formerly designed with words at Facebook. Based in Toronto.