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Mary Oliver’s 20th volume of verse is one of her most appealing.

Poems and Prose Poems
By Mary Oliver
Beacon Press
59 pp.

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For many fans of Mary Oliver, Swan will be a cause for celebration. The slim volume offers more than the poet’s strongest work in years; it also makes readers feel as if she is including them in this phase of her journey.

That combination is hard to resist, considering the quality of Oliver’s work – which has earned the Pulitzer Prize – and the fact that her poems usually reveal so little about her own life. Yet in this collection, her 20th, Oliver serves as a guide to the natural world and the landscape of her poetry. That dual role begins in the first poem, which opens with a bold question: What can I say that I have not said before?

Many well-known poets have answered that query by focusing on loss and mortality or resorting to stale language and a repetition of earlier ideas. Yet Oliver’s response is lovely and compelling:

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Those lines are classic Oliver: evocative, apt, and pulsing with wisdom. But then she adds another level by telling readers to visit the art museum, the chamber of commerce, and the forest because:

The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.

That combination of witnessing to and engaging the audience is surprising, and inviting. And from that point on, the reader is eager to follow Oliver, who delivers one strong poem after another. The subjects seem familiar – a hummingbird, stones on the beach, a rose – as does her striking language. But by using “you” and “I” in the poems, she allows readers into her private world again. Those moments feel like gifts, and they make the writing even more resonant.

As the book progresses, Oliver continues to pique interest by introducing a subject – such as a fox she sees along the road – and writing about it in several poems. Each appearance adds richness and complexity. The same is true of the Percy series (about her late beloved dog), which continues here after appearing in previous books. In “Percy Wakes Me (Fourteen)” she describes a simple, almost mundane situation, and then challenges the reader’s assumptions with her closing line: “Think about it.”


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