Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver

By Dan Clendenin

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Mary Oliver, Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (New York: Penguin, 2017), 455pp.

If you are a fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry, this might be just the book for you. Back in 2007, the New York Times described Oliver as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” Among her numerous awards, her collection entitled American Primitive (1984) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, while New and Selected Poems (1992) won the National Book Award.

Oliver is best known as a nature poet, and for her solitary walks near her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts (she now lives in Florida), and for how those walks provided a rich fund of material for her to observe, ponder, and rejoice in the physical creation: “My work is loving the world,” she writes in the first poem of her book “Messenger.” If we still our busy minds and pay attention, the physical creation provokes in us astonishment, joy, and gratitude. Not that Oliver ignores the darkness. Other poems speak of unrequited love, brokenness, darkness, and “the dull, brutish ways of mankind.”

Born in 1935, Oliver has published some three dozen books of poetry in the last fifty years, and another half dozen prose works. This book collects over 200 of her poems from twenty-six different volumes. It begins with selections from her most recent book (Felicity, 2015) and ends with her first volume of poetry that was published when she was twenty-eight (No Voyage, 1963). Although there is an index of titles and first lines, there is no introduction of any sort to Oliver’s life and work, either by an editor or Oliver herself. I guess that awaits a future “critical edition” of her “complete works.”

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