Upstream by Mary Oliver

As I read Mary Oliver’s latest essay collection, Upstream, I wondered what this brilliant poet thinks of the latest election, inauguration, and state of the world. Is she staying deep in her beloved woods, ignoring it all, or would she like to be marching with us (and what on earth would her sign say)?

After finishing the last essay, I decided that if Mary Oliver had to spend a few days in DC, it wouldn’t be long before she became preoccupied with the tightly budded winter trees and the ice along the tidal basin. Maybe she would spend a quiet afternoon at the Lincoln Memorial sitting on that cold and solemn stone, and surely, she would soon become enamored by a dog, pulling at its owner’s leash.

At its heart, Upstream is a collection of essays about escape from the world of laws and rules into the gaudy extravagance of the natural world, where we can cool our hot eyes in a stream and rest for a while on a thick bed of moss. Oliver doesn’t ignore life’s troubles (“There is something you can tell people over and over, and with feeling and eloquence, and never say it well …. It is the news of personal aging.”) But rather, she dives deep into the joys and sorrows of life to find some mysterious, sustaining wellspring deep within.

Oliver writes about other romantic greats, including Whitman and Wordsworth, Emerson, and Poe. And she embraces their extreme differences. Of  Emerson, she writes that he believed, “that we are spirits that have descended into our bodies.”  Emerson’s spirits live in an ordered world, where maize seed leads to corn, justice to justice and injustice to injustice.

The next essay is a quick juxtaposition to Poe, whose work revolves around “the anguish of knowing nothing for sure about the construct of the universe or about the existence of a moral order within it.”  Oliver doesn’t sugarcoat the disturbing nature of Poe’s health, mental state, and stories. And yet, at the end of her essay, she devotes considerable attention to the “swooning” that so often occurs by Poe’s narrators.

According to Oliver, “To swoon is not only to pass from consciousness physically; it may also represent a willingness, even an eagerness to experience unknown parts of life – obscure regions that might lead one toward a re-visioning …. What is certain in the rational realm is by no means certain in the kingdom of swoon.”

Also included in Upstream is an entire essay devoted to “Swoon,” in which the word is mentioned only once. Oddly enough, the essay entitled “Swoon” is about a practical female spider who lives in the stairwell of a house Oliver is renting. Oliver describes the spider’s intricate web and the crickets the spider catches and the egg sacs the spider weaves “like a Lilliputian gas balloon.” The only time the word “swoon” appears is when Oliver describes the work of the female spider: “And still she fusses, pats it and circles it, as though coming to a judgment; then pats some more, or dozes, still touching it. Finally, she withdraws her sets of legs, curls them, almost as if in a swoon, or a death, and hangs, motionless, for a full half day. She seems to sleep.” As if every day, we could each work so diligently and courageously that we too, may enter “the kingdom of swoon.”

To read this small collection of essays is to be given a key to another dimension in which reason plays a distant second fiddle to the natural world of foxes and owls, maples and oaks. To read Oliver’s words is to find relief from any kind of suffering, especially suffering caused by the manmade world and its problems. “Knowledge has entertained me and it has shaped me and it has failed me. Something in me still starves,” Oliver writes. Instead, she implores us to have faith in our intuitions and the nature from which they spring.

Oliver offers us an alternative to both MSNBC and Fox News. Her essays – as much as her poems – offer a brief healing respite, a place where “there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else. … The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves – we are at risk together or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”


Pamela Hunt Cloyd writes, teaches yoga, and designs jewelry in Kailua, Hawaii, where she lives with her husband and two sons. Pamela’s essays have appeared in Runner’s World, the San Diego Reader, and various other publications. Find her on Twitter @pamelahuntcloyd and on her blog.

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