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Love and the Natural World in Mary Oliver's Blue Horses

Reviewed by Teresa Piccari

BLUE HORSES By Mary Oliver

Published October 14 2014

Penguin Press

ISBN: 978-1-59420-479-1      $24.95

In Blue Horses, her new poetry collection released in mid October, lyric poet Mary Oliver continues her conscious relationship with the natural world, embraces a new love as she approaches 80, and encounters cancer.

In "Little Lord Love,” why, she asks “he with the arrows,/ has definitely shot the last one/ with my name on it/ straight to the heart/ now, when I am no longer young.../ why did you wait until now?"

Creeping stealthily "like a cat/on silent feet/ about my own house-"/ in the poem "I Woke," the author peeks at her sleeping lover "your hair/ sprayed on the pillow.../ the most beautiful thing/ that has ever been in my house."

As a reader I am stopped in my tracks, my mind progressing swiftly through the astrological wheel...Aries, Taurus, Gemini, taking in the gravity of "The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac," where a more serious game of stealthness plays out. "Why should I have been surprised?/Hunters walk the forest/without a sound.../ Just as the cancer entered my body,/ without a sound."

The Pulitzer Prize winner (American Primitive) navigates the seen and unseen worlds in a state of alert wakefulness as she muses on time and timelessness from her perspective of consciousness, which is derived more from her absolute reverence for nature, than from meditation or yoga, although she playfully dabbles there also in this collection.

Like a master chef whose culinary talents may be best spotlighted in the creation of a simple dish such as a roasted chicken, Oliver's work attains poetic mastery by harnessing the elusive present moment and stretching it out, to depict how human complexities and drama can yield to simplicity and be transformed by the salve of the natural world.

This slim volume swells with riffs on God, gods, love, angels, the relationships she has with birds, trees, stones. She tends these with a curious, child-like simplicity and gratefulness. What a wonder it must be for Oliver to close the door to her home and enter her church of the natural world, each time she goes for a walk. What a gift she offers her reader, with the poems that lay strewn along her path.

In "Drifting" she takes us by the hand on one of her jaunts, allowing us to bear witness to her process. "I was enjoying everything: the rain, the path/ wherever it was taking me, the earth roots/ beginning to stir./ I didn't intend to start thinking about God,/ it just happened./ How God, or the gods, are invisible,/ quite understandable./ But holiness is visible, entirely./ It's wonderful to walk along like that,/ though not the usual intention to reach an answer/ but merely drifting."

The title piece, "Blue Horses" is an ekphrastic poem inspired by a painting by the late soldier and war victim, Franz Marc, part of the Blue Rider group of painters. Stepping into the art work and engaging the horses, Oliver admits, "I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses/ what war is.../ I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc./ Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually./ Maybe the desire to make something beautiful/ is the piece of God that is inside each of us."

God, smaller gods and angels appear on her journeys. In "Forgive Me," she muses that "Angels are wonderful but they are so, well. aloof./ It's what I sense in the mud and the roots of the/ trees, or the well, or the barn, or the rock with/ its citron map of lichen that halts my feet and/ makes my eyes flare, feeling the presence of some/ spirit, some small god, who abides there./ If I were a perfect person, I would be bowing/ continuously."

In contemplating their existence in "Angels," the poet declares, "You might see an angel anytime/ and anywhere. Of course you have/ to open your eyes to a kind of/ second level, but it's not really/ hard.../ I don't care how many angels can/ dance on the head of a pin. It's/ enough to know that for some people/ they exist, and that they dance."

Like a favorite walk, this is a volume a reader can return to to be reminded of the wise world that beckons, to help us transcend the human din, just beyond our doorstep.


Teresa Piccari is a writer, teacher and creativity coach. A native Philadelphian, she lives in coastal Maine.


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