There are writers in my life that every time I read their work I’m changed. My viewpoint is shifted slightly or my world is opened up wider. Mary Oliver is one of those writers for me. I gulp down her words and then I think about them for hours afterwards. Upstream, her latest book of essays, is amazing. As I read I was reminded, again and again, of how much this woman sees the world, really sees it.
In this collection Oliver is doing two different things that somehow work together perfectly. She’s saying a long goodbye to Provincetown, the city she lived in for years. And she’s reflecting on the writers that shaped her own writing, the people that helped her see the world, her “greats,” as she puts it.
Oliver’s ability to talk about a dog, a snapping turtle, or an injured gull and help me see larger themes of the world in it never fails to startle and delight me. She sees in a way I can only hope to someday see, in a way I strive for as I move through a very different world than hers, one that is filled with the man made rather than the natural.
I left this book with thoughts of who my greats are, who has influenced me in my life, who do I go back to again and again to read their work or look at their art one more time. And on that list, probably near the top, is Mary Oliver.
Attention is the beginning of devotion. (p. 8)
The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and the absolute but to the extravagant and the possible. (p. 68)
I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. 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. (p. 154)