american primitive by mary oliver

Remembering Mary Oliver


By Stephen Page

Oliver as Nature

            This afternoon, I am rereading Mary Oliver’s American Primitive for the sixth time.  I first opened the book yesterday, and every time I reopen it, the poems make me forget the reason I am reading the book.  I am supposed to be looking for an interesting topic to write an essay about.  Each time I get a thread of an idea on what to write, the poems carry me to the place the narrator is, climbing a tree, eating blackberries, standing by a pond, watching a bobcat walk by, feeling large snowflakes land on my upturned face and melt on my cheeks.  I am immersed in the poems.  Being of quick mind, it took me only six readings of the book to understand why.  This is Oliver’s intent.  She immerses the reader into the poems by immersing herself into the narrator who immerses herself into the subject she is observing.

            The poem ‘White Night’ is a prime example of what I am speaking about:
All night
     I float
           in the shallow ponds
                 while the moon wanders
     bone white,
         among the milky stems.
I saw her hand reach. . .
the muskrat
     will glide with another
           into their castle
                 of weeds . . .
           I want to flow out
                across the mother
of all waters,
     I want to lose myself . . .
You see how the narrator and the muskrat are similar in place, viewpoint, and action?  They are congruous.  Similarly, the second party, “her”, corresponds to the fourth party, “another.”   This “her” is possibly a lover of Oliver’s, and “another” is a mate of the muskrat, but if you take into consideration that Oliver starts the poem with “I,” and not “We,” I am guessing “her” is the transition-being of the narrator to the muskrat.  A morph.  At the end of the poem the speaker is the muskrat.

Similar transformations happen throughout the collection, in fact, almost in every poem—though Oliver is talented enough to make each transition unique.  Sometimes she writes mirror poems—for example, the bear poems.  In one she is observing a bear climbing a tree, finding a honeybee nest, enjoying the taste of the honey and so elated by the sweetness he is ready to fly like a bee.  In a sequential poem, the narrator is the bear, climbing the tree, having paws, eating bees that are in the way of her raid of the golden syrup, and then she too has the fantasy to fly.

Of course, success at having the reader become the subject via the narrator via the writer is due solely to the talent of Mary Oliver. Her lush language immerses the reader into the subject by stimulating all of the senses.   Only an adroit writer can pull this off.  Most writers resort to didactic-ism and over-explanation—Oliver simply shows, she never tells.

American Primitive has myriad themes that could be discussed in depth, but my theory is that Oliver was trying to convey one main idea—that is, that every living thing on this earth is connected.  She shows this in several ways: one, the morphing; two, by having subjects who die, or pass on, return to the earth or to the sea; three, the title, which along with several poems in the collection infers that the people who were living on the continent of America before Europeans arrived some five hundred years ago were in tune with the natural world—this is an indirect way of saying that the people who recently populated America are not so in tune.


Stephen Page is the Author of The Timbre of Sand, Still Dandelions, and A Ranch Bordering the Salty River. He holds two AA’s from Palomar College, a BA from Columbia University, and an MFA from Bennington College. He also attended Broward College. He is the recipient of The Jess Cloud Memorial Prize, a Writer-in-Residence from the Montana Artists Refuge, a Full Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, an Imagination Grant from Cleveland State University, and an Arvon Foundation Ltd. Grant. He loves his wife, reading, travel, family, and friends.