Is there a book that you like to give away over and over? Is there a book that you turn to at regular intervals in your life? Is there a book that acts as a counsellor, a friend, a comfort, a consoler, a realist, an idealist, a bridge to empathy, a window of light? if there is, then this why books possess an indefinable magic and why, like all great loves, their spirit never truly dies.
“Felicity” by the American poet Mary Oliver is one such book for me. Mary Oliver, who died early 2019, was one of the great American poets of the latter part of the 20th Century and early 21st. Steeped in the transcendentalist vision of Emerson and Thoreau, the exuberance of Whitman, and the eager eye of Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver wrote with brilliant perception about the physical world she immersed herself in, letting the natural world take centre stage and reminding her audience that there are other worlds and other dimensions to taste and relish besides the human one. Her philosophy is one of deep sensitivity, lucid empathy, and a life-affirming sense of expansion, that nothing is too small to be wondered about.
These qualities shine forth in “Felicity”, which examines that most fascinating of topics that interests us all: love. Some of the poems are only a few lines long, yet this is to suggest a disservice as to their merit. Within these parameters, Oliver conveys more sense and beauty that many lesser poets would strive to achieve in poems of greater length and opaqueness. “Felicity” can be read in a quick thirty minute burst from cover to cover but in order to savour the full magic of the writing, it is best to read slowly and fully appreciate each poem for the enriching morsels they are.
Oliver invites us along the journey with the great Persian poet, Rumi, acting as a guiding spirit, injecting the poems with pearls of wisdom, a credo for living and loving, threaded with compassionate humour. There are poems that you will want to declaim in recognition and commit to memory, for the sheer sense of exuberance and aliveness they contain. For example, in “Moments”, the central lines underscores one of the main themes of the collection:
Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?
These nuggets of learning sit cheek by jowl with poems that more obviously speak of love. In “I Know Someone” , the poet compares kissing with a flower opening and, despite acknowledging a flower’s potent charm to captivate, concludes that ultimately it is humans who are the fortunate ones as we can kiss other humans and realise the supreme and tangible delight of connection.
There is a recurring sense in this collection of 38 poems, that love is the highest ideal that we can aspire to, “love is the one thing the heart craves”. Notwithstanding the pain and affliction that life will throw at us, from time to time, it is a force worth seeking out, worth embracing, and worth singing about. Mary Oliver may have departed from earth, but her poems transcend the mundane and will continue to blaze bright, long into the future. Seize the rich lens of attention, she advocates, and never lose your childlike sense of awe, your acceptance of mortality and, above all, your desire to love. Live while you can, have fun along the way, and wear the cloak of gratitude with unbounded joy.
To put it blithely, these poems capture perfectly why harbouring an open heart and an alert mind are fundamental qualities in a poet, besides a keen sense of the precision of language and an eye for the fitting image, “I don’t want to lose a single thread/ from the intricate brocade of this happiness”. Dive in, at any point, into this book and you will come swimming to the surface in a state of buoyancy – revitalised, refreshed, and reborn.