Book Review: "Upstream," by Mary Oliver



"Upstream," is an aptly-titled, scintillating collection of essays by the Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver. Collecting essays that have been published previously, it delivers a bird's-eye view of Oliver's journey as a poet and a person. 

I have found it extremely difficult to write something on this book – not for the want of motivation – for every new page that I have read, I have felt a compulsive need to express my admiration – almost as a joyful puppy bounding around the object of its affections! However, her words are so simple and yet so complete in their description of both the subject as well as the author, I sincerely feel that perhaps, the addition of my own may actually diminish their value. What follows is my attempt to express my thoughts (using Oliver's words for the most part), but calling them a "review" would be akin to calling a labeling of a river on the map of Egypt, the true and ferocious Nile! I wish my words could, if only, point to the direction this river flows, as if a line on a map; that they represent the minutest approximation of the real, and yet, mirror some truth about the shape of its reality.

The collection is divided into five sections, each traversing a unique, but connected part of the landscape that made her the poet and the artist she is. There is something indescribably soothing in her words. Clauses, sentences, paragraphs wash over the shores of an unsettled heart in a gentle rhythm that urges the reader towards the as yet unexplored depths of their own lands… There is erudition, of that nobody can disagree. But what sets her words apart is the compassion, the understanding that they impart to their subject. Be it Emerson, whom she loves and reveres, sometimes with the same words; or Poe, into whose darkness she peers not as an objective physician, but as a compassionate fellow traveler gently enquiring of your health; or Whitman, with whom she shares a love for the natural world, her words guide us as beacons along a night path. And yet, there is no semblance of pride or self-importance in them – they exist because they must, and if they illuminate a portion of our lives, they do so in full realization that there may be cities, countries, even kingdoms, in this land, where they are unable to reach…

First and foremost, the words are for themselves – a chronicle, if one would, of moments, and people, and the rich (and somewhat complicated) tapestry made of both. Contrasting the transcendentalism of Emerson with Poe, who was fighting more than a few demons himself, and his works, she says –

"His posture is transcendentalism, of the nineteenth-century Germanic variety. The possibilities of alchemy, mesmerism, occultism appeal to him. He is no Orpheus, begging an exception and a second chance, but rather— I mean from his own view— a visionary. To change his own fate, he would change our comprehension of the entire world."

A task seeking such profound consequences is doomed to fall prey to its own expansive scope. That Poe's works have survived, and thrived, in the centuries of cultural and social changes, points to a universal element of appeal that may not be in the same vein as the Romantic poets, but is nonetheless, timeless, according to her --  

“But literature, the best of it, does not aim to be literature. It wants and strives, beyond that artifact part of itself, to be a true part of the composite human record— that is, not words but a reality.”

And it is this reality that she seeks within recollections from her childhood, or encounters with various forms of life (human, animal, avian, or such), or the imaginary flights of her idols and contemporaries. It takes a courageous soul to find the underlying endurance and resilience in “a tale of unmatchable horror,” but she does it time and again, emphasizing the human element to resist the darkness that often feels more overpowering than the light.

At all times, is she aware of the acute limitations of language (spoken or written) to express that, which is felt, instinctively and naturally, over a conclusion that one must arrive at following a prescribed route –

“Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion. Come with me into the field of sunflowers is a better line than anything you will find here, and the sunflowers themselves far more wonderful than any words about them.”

The essays alternate in structure between thoughtfully laid out analyses, and individual streams of thoughts, that are elegantly sown together to perhaps reveal more than their individual parts…

Highly, highly recommended!

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