The New York Times bestselling collection of essays from beloved poet, Mary Oliver .
"In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. Read more...
The New York Times bestselling collection of essays from beloved poet, Mary Oliver.
"In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be."
So begins Upstream, a collection of essays in which revered poet Mary Oliver reflects on her willingness, as a young child and as an adult, to lose herself within the beauty and mysteries of both the natural world and the world of literature. Emphasizing the significance of her childhood "friend" Walt Whitman, through whose work she first understood that a poem is a temple, "a place to enter, and in which to feel," and who encouraged her to vanish into the world of her writing, Oliver meditates on the forces that allowed her to create a life for herself out of work and love. As she writes, "I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple."
Upstream follows Oliver as she contemplates the pleasure of artistic labor, her boundless curiosity for the flora and fauna that surround her, and the responsibility she has inherited from Shelley, Wordsworth, Emerson, Poe, and Frost, the great thinkers and writers of the past, to live thoughtfully, intelligently, and to observe with passion. Throughout this collection, Oliver positions not just herself upstream but us as well as she encourages us all to keep moving, to lose ourselves in the awe of the unknown, and to give power and time to the creative and whimsical urges that live within us.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-08-01
- Reviewer: Staff
Distinguished, honored, prolific, popular, bestselling—adjectives that don’t always hang out together—describe Oliver’s body of work, nearly three dozen volumes of poetry and collections of prose. This group (19 essays, 16 from previous collections) is a distillation of sorts. Born of two “blessings—the natural world, and the world of writing: literature,” it partakes of the spirits of a journal, a commonplace book, and a meditation. The natural world pictured here is richly various, though Oliver seems most drawn to waterways. All manner of aquatic life—shark and mackerel, duck and egret—accompany her days, along with spiders, foxes, even a bear. Her keen observations come as narrative (following a fox) or as manual (building a house) or as poems masquerading as description (“I have seen bluefish arc and sled across the water, an acre of them, leaping and sliding back under the water, then leaping again, toothy, terrible, lashed by hunger”). When the world of writing enters, currently unfashionable 19th-century writers emerge—Percy Shelley, William Wordsworth, William James—in readings that evade academic textual analyses and share the look-at-what-I-saw tone animating Oliver’s observations of the natural world. The message of her book for its readers is a simple and profound one: open your eyes. (Oct.)
A poet's longstanding love of nature
Most of the 18 brief, beautiful essays in Upstream have appeared individually in other collections by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver. Gathered together here, these prose works provide an interior roadmap to her development as one of America’s most accomplished—and most popular—poets of nature and transcendence.
The title essay, for example, is an impressionistic remembrance of straying away from her family as a young child, wandering upstream and becoming lost. Within a few short pages, it becomes an exhilarating celebration of being lost in nature. The essay concludes: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
Attention and devotion are what readers have come to expect from Oliver’s poems. The same traits are evident in her prose. In the astonishing “Swoon,” she watches with great curiosity and sympathy as a female spider produces eggs, nurtures her newborns and painstakingly traps a cricket—“with a humped, shrimplike body and whiplike antennae and jumper’s legs”—in her web. Questions arise in her mind about what she is witnessing, and she writes: “I know I can find [answers] in some book of knowledge, of which there are many. But the palace of knowledge is different from the palace of discovery, in which I am, truly, a Copernicus. The world is not what I thought, but different, and more! I have seen it with my own eyes!”
Other essays contemplate her poetic and intellectual forebears—the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and poets Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and William Wordsworth. Still others relate her soulful encounters with nature during her walks in the woods and along the shore near her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. These places have often been sources of inspiration for her poems and will be familiar to many of her readers. So the final essay about leaving Provincetown, nuanced as it is, comes as a shock.
Oliver, now in her 80s, has moved to Florida. And she remains a joyful advocate for the palace of discovery.