This book was one of the first titles bought in the Great December Book Binge. Mary Oliver is one of my favourite poets and there was absolutely no way I would have been able to wait until 2018 before buying this book. Don’t even say the word library. This is Mary Oliver. Not only must I own this, I must own it in hardback. I even made a tiny ritual of fixing a bookplate to the flyleaf and inscribing it with my name, using a stamp given to me by my aunt on my sixteenth birthday.
Yesterday, the act of reading this book also became a little ritualistic. Mary Oliver’s poetry and essays are all inspired by her fascination with the natural world and her work is characterised by close observation, keen insight and ecological understanding, all packaged in deceptively straightforward language. For Oliver, the practice of paying close attention to nature is an act of devotion. So it felt right that the reading of this book took place outdoors, lying on a daybed with way too many cushions, the light streaming down through the vine leaves, my dog and cat snoozing against my legs.
Upstream is a book of selected essays and in my fan-girl devotion to Oliver’s poetry I’d come across several of these pieces in previous collections. Her books such as Blue Iris, Winter Hours, Owls and Other Fantasies and Blue Pastures are all poetry collections studded with the occasional essay, so I found Upstream to be a treat in that it was an uninterrupted indulgence in her skill as an essayist.
From the title essay I was in heaven. All the wisdom and empathy for other species that make her poetry so immediately recognisable was right there from the first page. In my opinion, Oliver’s way of looking at the world and recognition of the intrinsic value of the non-human is crucial in the face of the ecological crises we’ve set in motion. But she’s gentle – there’s no table thumping or finger wagging. She takes her readers with her out into the fields and woods of New England and invites us to look. In seeing through her eyes, we’re feeling her wonder, thinking with her insight. It’s all perfectly clear and reasonable. She’s a writer who manages to make being profound look deceptively easy.
“Upstream” and “Staying Alive” are classic Oliver fare, imprecations to see and let ourselves be lost in wonder at the life that goes on at all scales around us. “Of Power and Time” explores the importance of solitude to the creative life. “Sister Turtle” is a beautiful meditation on the moral dilemma of valuing non-human life yet needing to eat, with food consumption’s unavoidable attachment to suffering. The third section collects a series of Oliver’s biographical essays on the life and work of Emerson, Poe, Whitman and Wordsworth. Section Four recounts episodes from Oliver’s life where she spent significant time observing and thinking about individual creatures who shared her living space: a household spider, an injured bird, a dog that adopted her. Section Five is an ode to the town, people and landscape that housed her and her partner for decades; Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Despite my deep appreciation for the content of these essays I can’t escape the feeling that what I loved most about reading this book was hearing her voice. Yes, her voice is clear and consistent across all her writing – I believe I would recognise a Mary Oliver sentence anywhere. But to read her essays, one passing through my mind after the other, was to hear her speak to me again in a long, delightful flow. Not a conversation, of course, but as if I was sitting with her by the fire and she was rambling away to me over a glass of whiskey or a hot cup of tea. For me, Upstream was an intimate and sustained connection with the mind of a writer for whom I have nothing but admiration and respect.