This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Mary Oliver’s newest collection of poetry is a simple one, and as lovely and as gently insightful as we’ve come to expect from one of our greatest living poets. Felicity (Penguin Press) is, as the name suggests, marked by happiness, contentment. This, if nothing else, sets it apart from the bulk of modern poetry. Oliver has lived enough years, and filled them with enough beloved poems, to earn the right to share her joy with us unapologetically.
Felicity is most simply an ode to love. In her typical style of direct phrasing with few linguistic festoons Oliver opens her heart like a child and laughs with the surprise of love her life has offered her.
“I did think, let’s go about this slowly.
This is important. This should take
some really deep thought. We should take
small thoughtful steps.
But, bless us, we didn’t.”
– page 51
The sort of love Oliver writes of here is like that of a teenager–carefree, or naive. It is far from it, of course. The arrangement of the book cleverly staves off the potential naivety of this simple love; the love poems come only after the book’s first half has walked us along with Oliver as she takes in the natural beauty she so richly appreciates. Oliver’s writing has always been defined by her love for nature, and this comes first in Felicity. This is her first love, and romantic love does not displace it. The romantic love she writes of comes after this journey through the wild, and positions romance and companionship as another blessing in an already blessed life, rather than as the only thing that has made an otherwise drab life livable. The simplicity of happiness expressed in this love then is not naive or silly, but serendipitous–this too gets to be lived and enjoyed. It is not joy completed but joy compounded.
There is nothing really new in these poems, but there doesn’t really need to be. We don’t read Mary Oliver for a reinvention of poetry or philosophy; we read her for the wondering eye she turns on the natural world and the human heart, and the quiet grace with which she in turn delivers those to us on paper. We read her for the new eyes she gives us for things we have seen too many times to remember but need to see again, differently. Here, she gives us the knocked-tipsy joy of discovering another person loves you and is worthy of your own defenseless heart. The final poem in the section on love is titled The Gift, and these lines capture the spirit of the book:
“Love still as once you loved, deeply
and without patience. Let God and the world
know you are grateful.”
– page 77