Blue Horses by Mary Oliver

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We go to poetry for countless reasons, which helps explain why Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry, Helen Vendler’s Soul Says, Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?, and Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry are still necessary. No one should go to Mary Oliver’s poems to be challenged, and that’s all right. There’s nothing criminal about being soothed by an often tenderly crafted Oliver composition. She won a Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive, her fourth volume of poetry, and Blue Horses is her twelfth.

In “What We Want,” she provides a presumptuous manifesto in a few lines, and anyone familiar with her earlier poems will see what she almost always aims for, and succeeds in achieving :

In a poem
people want
something fancy,

but even more
they want something
made plain,

easy to swallow-
not unlike a suddenly
harmonic passage

in an otherwise
difficult and sometimes dissonant

even if it is only
for the moment
of hearing it.

Oliver was born in 1933, sells out when she appears in lecture halls, and her poems feel so utterly at home in their pliant skin that one can almost imagine her sitting on a riverbank, in any season, pencil or fountain pen in hand as she, with deliberate, reverent lightness, puts letter to page.

Every piece of paper has “tooth,” the texture of the sheet. Linen and cotton in the wet mix of pulp affect tooth, as will any additive. For years, fiber artists and printers have been redefining paper, and poets have been redefining what they hope readers want. Oliver has known this for a very long time, which is why it is a little surprising that “What We Want” is not the first poem in Blue Horses. Instead she begins with the pompously titled “After Reading Lucretius, I Go To The Pond, ” with an almost painfully trite image of a heron’s white plumes as a crown. Her past work makes me want much better.

“What I Can Do,” comes next and it is a gripe about how confusing she finds operating a television, a clothes washer and cell phones. The last line announces that she can strike a match and light a fire, the kind of statement better suited to the late Philip Whalen, a Buddhist priest. In “I Don’t Want To Be Demure or Respectable,” she declares :

I’m not trying to be wise, that would be foolish.
I’m just chattering.

Exactly. She rises above chatter in powerful gems like the last lines of “To Be Human Is To Sing Your Own Song:”

In the song sparrow’s nest the nestlings,
those who would sing eventually, must listen
carefully to the father bird as he sings
and make their own song in imitation of his.
I don’t know if any other bird does this (in
nature’s way has to do this). But I know a
child doesn’t have to. Doesn’t have to.
Doesn’t have to. And I didn’t.

mary-oliver6She begins by separating what her parents did from what she did, and it is wonderfully vague about when she decided to put words to this, and how angry she was at being expected to do things their way. Adults come to grips with binding/unbinding, and artists, with words or other tools, are a large part of the sorting out. Oliver’s tone here works perfectly, validating what anyone trying to grow up has to struggle with. Yes, she says. It stays with you. And paying attention to the sparrow–as opposed to just one’s inner angst– helps keep anger from being destructive as it breaks away from being hobbled by any obstacle. The whole poem is strong and rewarding.

The title poem, about a painting called “Blue Horses” by Franz Marc, is equally strong and rewarding and is the kind of piece –I say this with pleasure- I can imagine turning up in a glossy magazine, the reproduction and the words it inspired side by side. Marc was a contemporary and friend of Kandinksy, and killed himself during World War I, having seen and experienced more than he could cope with facing again. Most of his paintings take natural subjects and play with them, and Blue Horses has an uncanny, towering perspective. The poem is also, literally, an imaginative leap.

I step into the painting of the four blue horses.
I am not even surprised that I can do this.

One of the horses walks toward me.
His blue nose noses me lightly. I put my arm
over his blue mane, not holding on, just
He allows me my pleasure.
Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain.
I would rather die than explain to the blue horses
what war is.
They would either faint in horror, or simply
find it impossible to believe.
I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us.
Now all four horses have come closer,
are bending their faces toward me
as if they have secrets to tell.
I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t.
If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what
could they possibly say?

Here Oliver says what every “decider” needs to face, deep within her or his heart, We should prefer to die rather than to explain to any living creature exactly what war is. So we have a poem that is both richly imaginative and as political as the best antiwar cri de Coeur.

As I have made clear, not everything in this slim collection is as strong or as nutritious. But we don’t always come to poetry to be fed with what parents, teachers, mentors and other authority figures think is good for us. Sometimes we come for undemanding pleasure, like in “On Not Mowing the Lawn’’, so that the grasshopper, or we, will “have gliding space.”

There’s beauty and sweetness in Blue Horses’ pages. Some of it necessary.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →