Friday Reads: Upstream by Mary Oliver

In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions.

“The Bright Eyes of Eleonora: Poe’s Dream of Recapturing the Impossible,” Upstream, 91.

Mary Oliver is a dear friend of mine.  

I do not mean, of course, that I have met her — or that I shall ever meet her (what a strange journey that should be!). But her words — her poems, her essays — sink deep into the blood-marrow of my bones, and I recognize on some thrum of instinct, kin. This is also not to say that ours is a kinship of talent; I shall not match Mary in writing (I think that she would say I would be a very poor writer, to only follow the paths she wandered).  

Upstream, published in 2016, three years before her death, is a collection of essays, the central conceit of all being nature and literature. I do not mean nature and literature in the way one, who might need to restock their pantry, might list bread, and then list cheese. It is bread and cheese, meant to be together, and one without the other would render the entire trip moot, for naught. It is the same way that Mary’s essays are about nature and literature. You simply cannot, she says, have one without the other. 

And what is the point of all this? — if one dares to ask a question. I set out to say that Upstream is a wonderful book on which to meditate — her collected work of poetry is like a Bible to me — but in re-reading the essay “Some Thoughts on Whitman,” I was struck by Mary’s line that “[Whitman’s methods were] to move the reader toward response rather than reflection” (94). Which is, of course, to say that Mary — a devotee of Whitman; I can think of no better word — has an intent to move us, the reader, to response! The hum through these pages is not to simply read this book, but to do so in public, out of doors, whooping in jubilation! 

In Upstream, the reader journeys through Five Parts of the collection; the two opening sections are crafted around nature, as are the two closing sections. Part Three seems to be the odd duckling out — it is about literature, and if one does not find amusement in literary criticism, this Part may cause the reader to drag their heels. (I myself skimmed through the essay on Poe.) But, turning that eye back on Mary, one can view the construction of the book in its entire around Part Three; it is why the conceit is nature and literature. Upstream would have made a very fine collection if it were solely about nature, just as one can eat bread without a companion; likewise, Mary’s intellect, wit, and spirit of play in her literary criticisms would stand very well on its own, as one can enjoy cheese without any vehicle. Putting the two together is fantastic; each whole part amplifies the whole, exquisitely, and entirely filling.

In all of its total, Upstream is a short book and can take only an afternoon to read. It is inspiring, in the way that means that it will put the breath in you. Whether the energy of that breath is to write, to create, to dance — all very well. But more so than that I think that, after you close the final page, you would find yourself taking your hat off of its hook and setting out the door for a very long walk.  

“Come with me into the field of sunflowers is a better line than anything you will find here,” Mary tells me at the beginning of the book from where she is, already waiting at the ending. “The sunflowers themselves far more wonderful than any words about them.”  

Oliver, Mary. Upstream: Selected Essays. Penguin Books, 2019.  

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