Upstream / Mary Oliver

Title: Upstream: Selected Essays

Author: Mary Oliver

Genre: Nonfiction, Essay Collection

Publisher: Penguin Press, October 11th 2016

Pages: 178

Synopsis: Comprising a selection of essays, Upstream finds beloved poet Mary Oliver reflecting on her astonishment and admiration for the natural world and the craft of writing.  

As she contemplates the pleasure of artistic labor, finding solace and safety within the woods, and the joyful and rhythmic beating of wings, Oliver intimately shares with her readers her quiet discoveries, boundless curiosity, and exuberance for the grandeur of our world. 

This radiant collection of her work, with some pieces published here for the first time, reaffirms Oliver as a passionate and prolific observer whose thoughtful meditations on spiders, writing a poem, blue fin tuna, and Ralph Waldo Emerson inspire us all to discover wonder and awe in life’s smallest corners.

“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.”

Although I have read Mary Oliver’s poetry for many years, delving into Upstream was my first glimpse into her lucid prose. Her voice is warm and familiar as she reflects on the history of Emmerson, the laying of turtle eggs in the sand, Poe’s concern over the uncertainty of the universe, and the adventures of a common house spider. Her transcendent and divine tone became a companion of sorts, as I read the essays before bed each night. 

A collection of three parts, the latter two being expansions on the first, Upstream is Oliver’s beautifully writ reflection on where she comes from, her kinship with the natural world and its wild ones, and the authors that have warmed her blood and quickened her own ink. Her essays on Whitman, Emerson, and Poe offer perspective and interpretation on both each author’s work. I read them as insightful companions to revisiting each author in turn.

“I quickly found for myself two such blessings—the natural world, and the world of writing: literature. These were the gates through which I vanished through a difficult place.”

Her writings on the natural world open a door to the often overlooked. Her prose is warm honey dripping from fresh honey combfreshly spilled blood on snow. It made me think of Waldeinsamkeit, the ‘untranslatable’ German word for “the feeling of being alone in the woods” with wald meaning wood/forest and einsamkeit meaning loneliness or solitude. She writes of that otherness felt in nature in a reflection of immense quiet and beauty.

The essays themselves were written with such a graceful and dignified beauty that they read like extended poems, which is, indeed, their point. They have definitely heightened my appreciation and understanding of both the wonders of the natural world and great literary figures of the past.



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