November 1, 2007

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Thirst, by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2007, 69 pages)
The Door, by Margaret Atwood (Houghton Mifflin, 2007, 117 pages)
Reviewed by Dan Szczesny dszczesny@hippopress.com

Two of literature’s grand dames of poetry have released new books, giving readers the perfect opportunity to explore why one poet, Mary Oliver, is so overwhelmingly overrated, while the other, Margaret Atwood, is so puzzlingly shortchanged.

Both new collections are a change in style for their respective poets, though nature themes abound as well as the easy sense of control and transition both poets display, no doubt due to their collective decades of experience.

But while Atwood’s new book, The Door, is a brave and well-thought-out study of mortality, Oliver’s new book, Thirst, continues her long slide into lazy Hallmark card territory.

No real surprise, one suposses, as Oliver has made a very successful career out of writing bad poetry. The shame is that she should know better. She studied at Vassar and grew up literally in the shadow of the great poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, serving as an assistant to Millay’s sister. Millay’s adorned style certainly is present in Oliver’s work, but where Millay dared the reader to take risks, Oliver is usually satisfied with easy-to-digest portraits of water snakes or the moon over the ocean.

Who can blame her, though, as her style certainly seems to have worked. Oliver is far and away the country’s best-selling poet, and likely one of the best known as well to those outside the standard literary circles. Her greeting card musings earned her the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for her collection American Primitive. It must have seemed like a good idea to the Pulitzer committee at the time to reward one of the few poets who seemed able to connect with a quickly tuning-out public, but it was like giving the scholarship to the cheerleader instead of the valedictorian.

Despite all this, Oliver was always at least true to her own muse — sure, she was a hack, but at least, like Susan Polis Shultz, she reveled in it. She lived the life of a true poet, scrawling out ditties about the sand dunes while living in Provincetown with her partner of 40 years, the wonderful photographer Molly Malone Cook. To Oliver, nature was her inspiration and her religion. The very sight of a goose could send her into a reverie about imagination and flight. It was like Thoreau had a 14-year-old sister — it’s hard to dislike someone who is so excited about something, even if the prose is obvious and challenge-free.

But all that has changed with Thirst. In it, Oliver has found God, and any semblance of true artistry or any of the foundation upon which Oliver based the last 30 years of her career have been replaced by what are, in essence, prayers.

In 2005, Cook died, and Thirst is clearly a grief-inspired attempt to come to terms with that tragic, life-changing event. Oliver’s love of nature is now a series of songs of praise to God. Where once she found inspiration in the simple beauty of a garden snake, now that garden snake is a creature of the creator.

But even at their most basic level, as daily meditations in the service of a higher being, the poems in Thirst are ironically uninspired. They sound forced, like someone speaking another language phonetically — Oliver is so unfamiliar with the language of prayer that the prose sounds recessive, like a child making things up in church. For example, in the poem “Making the House Ready for the Lord,” Oliver uses everyday spring cleaning as an analogy for her own soul. “Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but / still nothing is as shining as it should be / for you. Under the sink, for example, is an / uproar of mice ...”

And again, in “Musical Notation: 1” Oliver turns her back on the natural world and asks readers to find God in clouds, pear orchards and moths. “He or she, who loves God, will look most deeply into His works,” she writes.

Even fans of Oliver may find Thirst hard to swallow.

On the other hand, Atwood’s new book is also about the natural world and the thin mortal coil that keeps us tethered to it. Atwood is older now but still certain and confident. The 51 poems in five parts that make up The Door have Atwood considering her life through the chronological lens of the past and the future. Sometimes ironic, sometimes dark, Atwood’s funny poems about dead cats wrapped in silk in the freezer, the mysteries and frustrations of weather, and crickets are interspersed with far more serious fare, such as the gloomy but touching “My Mother Dwindles...”. In it, Atwood sits by her mother’s deathbed, unwilling and unable to let her go. “Outside in her derelict garden / the weeds grow almost audibly: / nightshade, goldenrod, thistle. / Each time I hack them down / another wave spills forward, / up toward her window. / They batter the brick wall slowly.”

Time and time again, Atwood considers the inevitability of life’s passing and nature’s ability to overtake both time and man. Finally, in the title poem, “The Door,” Atwood beautifully sums up life’s fleeting nature with an eight-stanza masterpiece. The narrator lives her life, ever conscious that the door at the end of her life is always there to walk through, but not until the end, after the dog has died, her husband is gone, her garden is overgrown, is she tempted to enter.

Strong and confident images coupled with fearless metaphors give The Door a relentlessness of spirit and language that Thirst is sadly lacking.

These are two veteran poets, working fairly similar ground, but the results could not be more different. Thirst: D The Door: ADan Szczesny