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Likely Stories: Upstream Selected Essays by Mary Oliver

Evocative essays of a poet obsessed with nature and its effects on humanity

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I avoid repeating author’s too closely together for Likely Stories.  This becomes particularly difficult when one of my favorites appears.  In the case of Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver, I decided to break the rule.  These essays are poems themselves.  Nature is much more than a theme for most of her poems, rather it is closely held and dynamic aspect of her work.  I named Mary my poetry soul mate.  Upstream has reinforced that belief.

Emerson is not a favorite of mine, but Oliver has turned my head in.  She writes, “The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and the absolute but to the extravagant and the possible. […] Emerson, who does not advance straight ahead but wanders to all sides of an issue; who delivers suggestions with a kindly gesture – who opens doors and tells us to look at things for ourselves.  The one thing he is adamant about is that we should look – we must look – for that is the liquor of life, that brooding upon issues, that attention to thought even as we weed the garden or milk the cow” (69) [Italics by author]

Mary Oliver offers a peek into her writing process.  She writes, “It is six A.M., and I am working.  I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame.  Neither do I have guilt.  My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot.  My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive.  If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late.  Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all. // There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done.  And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything.  The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it to neither power nor time” (30).  I adopt this passage, this essay, as my anthem, as my creed, as my goal.

Another favorite of mine is “Swoon.”  She discovers a nesting spider, and with fascination I can only admire, she spins a lovely story.  Mary writes, “This is the moment in an essay when the news culminates and, subtly or bluntly, the moral appears.  It is a music to be played with the lightest fingers.  All the questions that the spider’s curious life made me ask, I know I can find answered 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! // Bur a spider?  Even that? // Even That” (125) [Italics by author]

I barely commented in this review, because I want to dangle a few bites of Mary Oliver’s Upstream, and let each reader take the bait and swim along with her.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read more at  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.