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A Book Review of A Thousand Mornings: Poems by Mary Oliver
Reviewed by Linda Frances Lein

A Thousand Mornings As we have come to expect from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, observations of small, pristine moments in the natural world spring up in her newest collection of poems A Thousand Mornings.

A redbird, black snake, fox, fish, a mockingbird, bats, a white heron, and her dog Percy who “listened to poems” are a few of the critters that readers encounter (74). She makes the meeting of the wild critters feel like a routine occurrence as if they are not instinctively afraid of her as they might be of other human intruders in their world.

White flowers, daffodils, black oaks, leaves, pond lilies, pale dunes, high grass, “blue gray green lavender” tides are the terrain that we linger in when reading Oliver’s work (57). Many of these poetic natural images are from her home and community Provincetown, Massachusetts, where townspeople might catch a glimpse of her walking, stopping, looking or listening, and writing in her notebook, a regular ritual of hers.

Amidst Oliver’s earthy images, readers find spiritual journeys and connections as well (5). This is not new in her poems but rather is an ongoing pilgrimage for her. For example, in “On Traveling to Beautiful Places” she writes:

Every day I’m still looking for God
and I’m still finding him everywhere,
in the dust, in the flowerbeds.
Certainly in the oceans,
in the islands that lay in the distance
continents of ice, countries of sand.” (67)

And Oliver also makes comparisons between the natural world and human nature, an opportunity to find a sense of self and belongingness. For instance, in “The Poet Compares Human Nature to the Ocean from Which We Came” she writes:

…it can rise, ebb, froth
like an incoming frenzy of fountains, or it can
sweet-talk entirely. As I can too,
and so, no doubt, can you, and you.

What may surprise the reader are the poetic references to Oliver’s writing process—her walks, notebooks, pens, and words of past poets. For example, in “I Happened to be Standing” she writes:

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning. (3)

In “Foolish? No, It’s Not” she writes:

Sometimes I spend all day trying to count
the leaves on a single tree. To do this I
have to climb branch by branch and
write down the numbers in a little book. (5)

And in “Hum, Hum” she writes:

Also the words of poets
a hundred or hundreds of years dead—
their words that would not be held back. (42)

Oliver’s poems—this collection and others—will live long among those words of poets as well.  Her work has been, and will continue to be, anthologized for today’s readers and generations to come. Her words will not be held back. They will sing “full of earth-praise” (5).

Mary Oliver’s book A Thousand Mornings will resonate with readers.  They will walk the beach, climb trees, listen to the birds’ songs, and touch the delicate, soft petals of flowers.  This and so much more will cause readers to read, ponder, and re-read the 36-poem collection.

Reprinted with permission from Englewood Review of Books (November 2012)

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A Review of Paul Mariani’s Book Epitaphs for the Journey

In Epitaphs for the Journey, Paul Mariani, a well-established American poet and biographer of poets, revisits his life journey and faith—two things that are not separate but intertwined like lock and key. Mariani is a skilled storyteller who unravels the tangled strands of his childhood and openly explores the mystery of God in eight cantos, each with twelve poems that are new, selected, and revised from his previous work.

He unflinchingly examines his life experiences that, no doubt, tested his faith. In “Duet,” he reveals his mother who unsuccessfully “tried to salvage” and “kept coaxing” his father to sing “in harmony” with her (29). In “Crossing Cocytus,” he explores “…the boy under the great-limbed / purple beech that fronts” his home “his scrawny arms / locked about his knees, as he keeps sobbing to himself” (73). However, Mariani does not leave the broken boy under the large tree crying; he consoles, “I would comfort him for his having fathered me. / It has come out well” (73).

Although life cam out well for Mariani, a Boston College professor, it’s at the end of the second canto that Mariani admits his flaws. In “Light Streaming Into the Head” he writes, “I tried to make myself into a priest and failed” (64), and it’s in “Betty: September 1957” that readers learn of the exact moment he broke his vow. He discloses, “…I came off my earnest, stringent year-long fast / & kissed her lips & dear God tasted woman once again” (54).

Because Mariani informs readers of his faults, they are perhaps more willing to explore his views of God. In “Soldiers of Christ,” Mariani revisits the place where his Catholic school once stood. He writes, “The school is gone now, the chapel too, / and the playing fields: all gone. Even / the mountain over which the sun rose / and where God would often greet me / has turned to ice and stone” (51). It’s not in the school, nor his failed call that Mariani only finds God, but it’s in the loss of his first child that he “first began to understand the cost of loving” (“Beginnings” 80). After his wife’s miscarriage, his friend challenges Mariani by asking him what he thought “now of God’s ways toward men” (81). Mariani does not give up on God, though. In “Nine One One,” a response to the 2001 terrorist attacks, he concludes with God affirming, “I will not leave you orphans? Not / One of you. Not one, not a single precious one.” And other poems near the book’s end, (e.g.: “The Gift”) reveal that Mariani discovers that God is in the small things of his family life as well.

Epitaphs for the Journey is a poetic, spiritual journey, which is also evident in the front and back cover engravings by Barry Moser. The front cover is of a small boy who seems to be searching for a way out of a large, dark structure; the back cover is a hunched-over, cane-walking grandfather in a cathedral “bound for home” (“Fish Ladder, Damariscotta” 204). The engravings fittingly bookend the life journey of Mariani.

Mariani’s book Epitaphs for the Journey will resonate with readers. They will see their own life struggles through Mariani’s poems. They will ask their own difficult questions about God like Mariani has done. And perhaps, they will come to the same conclusions or similar answers that God is in each of life’s moments—big or small.

Reprinted with permission from Englewood Review of Books (Fall 2012)

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Last winter, Christiansen, a writing instructor at North Dakota State College of Science, drove U.S. Highway 75 from Moorhead to Breckenridge and then to Wahpeton, a 60-minute commute to teach freshmen how to write.

In those dark, bleak mornings of barren, frozen flatland, he challenged himself and crafted 54 poems: cinquains – a five-line poem that follows the pattern of 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / 2-syllables. Those poems are now available in an eBook titled Wolverton Road.

Although these are short poems in a particular form, Christiansen crafted them with prairie images and poetic language. With each word picture, he transports the reader with him on this road that snakes parallel to the Red River. Some of the poems even imply multiple layers of meaning such as his opening poem:

Trees felled
like pencils dropped
across the river ice.
Inkwell currents flow beneath in
silence

Many items along the rural landscape do not escape Christiansen’s poetic eye: farmsteads, yes, but also headlights, an abandoned minivan, twin silos, gravediggers, railroad crossings, yellow traffic signs, and even power lines and hay bales, another favorite of mine:

Haybales
piled up, sleeping
beneath the quilted snow.
Power lines pop, hum lullabies
above

Christiansen doesn’t leave the Midwest farmer or reader in the gripping, freezing cold of winter. Spring is evident in a few hints in the poems like in this one:

Monster
in John Deere green
straddles the painted line,
kicks up shoulder dust and springtime
wishes

If you are a commuter on rural roads, you’ll love this book. If you’ve lived on a farm, you’ll smile and want more. If you are a writer, you’ll find yourself nodding in affirmation, re-reading, and re-living each snapshot.  There’s something for every reader in this eBook Wolverton Road,  available at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Wolverton-Road-ebook/dp/B00CQAEPAS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1375621845&sr=8-1&keywords=Wolverton+Road

Wolverton Road

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