"What good company Mary Oliver is!" the Los Angeles Times has remarked. And never more so than in this extraordinary and engaging gathering of nine essays, accompanied by a brief selection of new prose poems and poems. (One of the essays has been chosen as among the best of the year by The Best American Essays 1998, another by The Anchor Essay Annual.) With the grace and precision that have won her legions of admirers, Oliver talks here of turtle eggs and housebuilding, of her surprise at the sudden powerful flight of swans, of the "thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else." She talks of her own poems and of some of her favorite poets: Poe, writing of "our unescapable destiny," Frost and his ability to convey at once that "everything is all right, and everything is not all right," the "unmistakably joyful" Hopkins, and Whitman, seeking through his poetry "the replication of a miracle." And Oliver offers us a glimpse as well of her "private and natural self -- something that must in the future be taken into consideration by any who would claim to know me."
Poet Mary Oliver wants us to consider the many disparate elements of Winter Hours
as "a long and slowly arriving letter--somewhat disorderly, natural in expression, and happily unfinished." And what a welcome letter it is. Oliver touches on the building of houses and the laying of turtle eggs. She ponders the work of Frost ("Everything is all right, say the meter and the rhyme; everything is not all right, say the words"), Poe, Whitman, and Hopkins. She includes some of her own poems and prose poems. And she speaks beautifully of the work of poem-building.
Perhaps more than any other poet writing today, Oliver is an inhabitant and deep observer of the natural world, a place without which, she says, she could not be a poet. All of her poems have been "if not finished at least started--somewhere out-of-doors," and her appreciation of the out-of-doors is all encompassing, defiant of standard classifications. "The world," she says, "is made up of cats, and cattle, and fenceposts!" Oliver so embraces the outdoors that one feels terrible for her that "the labor of writing poems" is so antithetical to being in nature. "Only oddly, and not naturally ... are we found, while awake, in the posture of deliberate or hapless inaction," she says. "But such is the posture of the poet, poor laborer." It is our good fortune that she makes the sacrifice, so that we can experience, through her poems, "the nudge, the prick of the instant, the flame of appreciation that shoots from my heels to my head when compass grass bends its frilled branches and draws a perfect circle on the cold sand." --Jane Steinberg