In Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (Penguin), one of our most beloved writers offers both the best of her work and a spiritual road map of sorts. Spanning more than 50 years and featuring more than 200 poems, the collection shows Oliver, in the early years, turning away from grief and finding in nature a “vast, incredible gift.” Over time, as she carefully observes and records, Oliver extols the beauty and complexity around her and reminds us of the interconnectedness of living. She also asks important questions, such as “have you ever dared to be happy/ . . . have you ever dared to pray,” and “Tell me, what it is you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” Those lines resonate as much today as when she first penned them decades ago. No matter where one starts reading, “Devotions” offers much to love, from Oliver’s exuberant dog poems to selections from the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Primitive,” and “Dream Work,” one of her exceptional collections. Perhaps more important, the luminous writing provides respite from our crazy world and demonstrates how mindfulness can define and transform a life, moment by moment, poem by poem.
Nikki Giovanni’s A Good Cry (William Morrow) may cause readers to weep in places, as when she describes watching her father beat her mother every Saturday night. That experience, which taught a young Giovanni “It will not be/ All Right/ So I must learn/ To cry,” forms the emotional center of this book. Other losses — the deaths of friends, the pain of fathers who must bury their sons, aging — also shape her perspective, as do the grandparents, writers and other people who have enriched her life. Giovanni, who has published 27 collections of poetry and received the first Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award, covers wide ground here as she celebrates unsung activists and heroes of history, and muses about the future of humanity in space. The work shifts from topic to topic, as if the poet feels compelled to share what she has learned about perseverance, joy and sorrow from decades of writing, teaching and advocacy. Sometimes that includes much-needed wisdom, as in these lines from the poem “The Past . . . the Present . . . the Future”: “We cannot undo/ The past we can build/ the future” but “When we decide to thank the Deity/ . . . We will all . . . no matter which/ Ideology . . . wrap our arms/ Around each other.” The best writing here is surprising and poignant, and shows Giovanni’s strength and originality.
The title poem of Good Bones , by Maggie Smith (Tupelo), went viral earlier this year because its central theme — wanting to believe in the goodness of the world for the sake of one’s children — connected with so many people. The other pieces in this collection, Smith’s third, provide a fuller understanding of the complexities faced by the speaker, who tries to teach everything a child needs for survival, but admits that “What can I say but stay/ alive? You’re new, and there’s too much to learn.” Sometimes motherhood makes her feel invincible, which she knows is not the case. Or she — like the reader — is charmed and touched by the innocent yet wise perspective of her children, who wonder about the sky, the past and the future. At other times, the writing is heartbreakingly real, as when the speaker mourns the loss of two “dears I was not meant to have” or must teach her children to avoid strangers offering rides or puppies, without destroying their faith in this world. Several poems have a fable-like feel, as hawks, crows, hunters and a mountain family reveal truths about childhood and the fragility of human life. No matter what the style or subject, though, the writing remains honest, compassionate and graceful, and the speaker maintains her determination to “love the world like a mother.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.