Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Upstream by Mary Oliver

UpstreamWhat would we do without Mary Oliver? Honestly. Her words, whether prose or poetry, speak to me, like, on a deep level, man.

And that’s how poetic I’m feeling today. 😉 I know she’s one of the more accessible poets out there right now and so some feel her poetry isn’t, I don’t know, as high-brow as some others’. But who the hell cares?

Anyway, I picked up her recent collection of essays, Upstream, from the library and was totally delighted, though not surprised, to find myself at turns reading at break-neck pace, then turning back to previous pages to re-read, then slapping the book down on the mattress to repose in some combination of awe and I don’t know what else… Mary Oliver does this to me. I’m sure you have writers that get you straight in the feels too. I’m struck. I read a passage like the one below and I feel stricken. With, I guess, awe and some feeling of being heard, or included, or just the feeling that the words on the page somehow reflect me or understand me…

“Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.”

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Just a recent view of the river on my walk home from work. You’d never know that this is one of the most urban sections of my walk.

I ask you.

The book is heavy with imagery, especially in the beginning, where each paragraph almost seemed to me like its own poem. Like so:

Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.

I generally prefer a quick pace when I’m reading but Mary Oliver is one of the few writers whose work demands that I slow down, dammit. This book definitely follows my current theme—I’ve been reading so many things lately that remind me to pay attention.  I’m doing my best to answer the call.

There are also sections of the book that are guided by narrative, including a tale about happening upon the breeding ground of snapping turtles, the ending of which totally surprised me. I won’t say any more.

Oliver also includes several reflections on those she calls “mentors,” writers who’ve gone before, who’ve paved the way. They include Emerson, Whitman, and Poe, all of whom get a brief bio and so  I learned something new about literary titans I’ve not paid much attention to as they’re not required reading for adults – did you know there’s no required reading for adults? You can, like, read whatever you want whenever you want. Honestly, that’s one of the great joys of my grown-ass life.

This was a long, meandering post, but I think Oliver would be OK with that. I’ll leave you with this gut punch about poetry:

“But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing—an artifact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness—wonderful as that part of it is. I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.”

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2 thoughts on “Upstream by Mary Oliver

  1. Beautiful review of a beautiful book! I read this one last year and really enjoyed it, but reading your thoughts and the quotes you pulled makes me think I should give it a reread too…seems like a good autumn read! I love what you said about an author who makes you feel heard or understood through their writing, that’s such an incredible feeling. I’m glad you found it in her writing!

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    • Thank you! It was definitely a good autumn read. I got it from the library but am contemplating buying it. It’s so dense and I know I could re-read it and keep finding things to highlight! Good to hear that you know what I mean by that feeling. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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