Felicity by Mary Oliver

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Was the 2 a.m. emergency room really the best place to tease open the knots life ties between love and loss? I had no choice. I could not be anywhere else.

Oliver, Mary. Felicity. New York: Penguin, 2015. Print.

Genre: poetry

Summary: Mary Oliver’s poetry and essay collections normally focus on nature. She lays bare her raptures and heartaches shared with grasshoppers, wild geese, or murk-water fishes. But in the collection, she presents the raptures and heartaches inevitable when loving both the self and another person.

Critique: I was, as I mentioned, in the emergency room as I grappled with Oliver’s collection of love poems. Specifically, I was in the waiting room while my friend was back in the exam room. Her bout with food poisoning required me to drive while she tipped her head in a bucket the way a honeybee tips down a pistil, hunting for nectar. When my friend texted to explain her soggy-verging-on-foamy, prostrate predicament, I calmly grabbed the essentials: purse, books, water bottle, car keys.

While the docs hooked my friend to an IV drip that would quell her nausea and rehydrate her cells, I settled in for some poetry.

The books I brought along were both by Mary Oliver, but they were separated by over a decade, with Owls and Other Fantasies published back in 2003. Comparing the two, I was struck by the brevity of the poems in Felicity. Oliver has always been able to go for the jugular, but in the latest work, she seemed to have given up stalking the reader in a slow, supple way. Her writing in Felicity is both ruthless and mercifully instantaneous.

Google Mary Oliver and you’ll find a lot of synopses curtailing her work to the keen description of nature. Be warned. Describe is not what Oliver does. You could say she teaches us how to experience and love the world for the first time.

You may think that in your daily life you’ve tousled your hair in some fling or flirtation with your external environment, but then you read Oliver and you realize all you’ve known is surface friction. External penetrates internal and vice versa and you are intimately aware that you had never seen the world like that. Until Oliver, you had never seen a storm as a “shaggy, howling sky-beast” or lightning as a “printed…sizzling unreadable language.”

But now your eyes are wide open and you are madly in love with this world and quite certain it is madly in love with you.

And so the most accurate way to articulate Oliver’s craft is to say that she virgins the world for us.

Felicity is a different assortment. Rather than write about nature, Oliver opens our eyes (and bodies) to that blissful parachuteless skydive that is love and its nature. The first section of the collection, The Journey, assembles experiences and observations that I read as learning to love the world and yourself in it. “The point is,” Oliver concludes, “you’re you, and that’s for keeps.”

Acquiring the skill and fervor required to love yourself above all else–not in petty selfishness, but rather infinite downy kindness–is what opens the door to truly loving another (and being loved in return), which becomes the focus of the second section, Love. And just as you might not, on your own, see a storm as a shaggy sky-beast, you might not have considered kissing to be like the opening of a flower, only faster. Like a fearless journalist, Oliver shares with readers the full spectrum, from love’s nascent, bottle-rocket budding to its unavoidable, withered snuffing.

Yes, we must acknowledge the loss. Is it really love if you can’t lose it?

Mug Collection.” CC BY 2.0

Love is not steadfast like your coffee mug collection. Nor is it sensible like a sweater or a wallet. It is fleeting–even if you get to love someone, The One, for more decades than there are toes on your feet. The One, your one, will one day die. But that is no excuse not to love with all you’re made of. As Oliver explains, “There is nothing more pathetic than caution/ when headlong might save a life,/ even, quite possibly, your own.”

Which brings the collection to its third and final section, Felicity. Bearing only one poem, this section seems to conclude that the key to everlasting and ever-expanding bliss boils down to a few simple elements: notice the world, welcome the difficult, unanswerable questions, and have a person in your life whose hand you best like to hold.

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Bad Girls in the New Age of Wonder Woman

The little girl was mean. She enjoyed being mean. She cussed. She picked fights. She bossed adults around. She was everything a girl is not supposed to be. Girls are supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice, but this child? Zero grams sugar. Absolutely nothing nice. Spice factor? 100% cayenne pepper.

I’m talking about none other than The Great Gilly Hopkins, eponymous protagonist of Katherine Paterson’s 1978 novel. Gilly, or Galadriel, is the meanest foster kid around. Nobody messes with her because her sassy armor is impenetrable…that is, until she arrives in Thompson Park. When Gilly realizes the kind townsfolk are disintegrating her defenses, she hatches a plan that inadvertently sabotages her chance for happiness.

The film adaptation premiered in 2015, with a cast including Kathy Bates and Glenn Close.

For those who don’t know, Katherine Paterson writes award-winning, heartfelt books with the same ease required to open a can of tuna. Newberry’s, National Book Awards, and plenty of others gild her accolades. Paterson has been on my reading shelf ever since I was old enough to read a chapter book all by myself. Her ability to capture the sincerity of adolescence without any saccharine dazzled me then and now. I still marvel at her finesse rendering the real world and everyday life. I envy this skill the same way I greened at the math nerds at school who whipped through the quadratic equation.

But in Gilly, Paterson accomplishes something far greater and much more complex than verisimilitude. She crafts a sympathetic, compelling, and very likable female protagonist who is also mean; who misbehaves and shoves back; and who revels in her own wickedness.

I can’t count the times I have seen these characters get bashed around in critique groups. Trying to be helpful, writers advise the author to…keep the girl’s spunk, but go easy on her cruelty. Or…I’d like her more if she wasn’t so mean. Or…have you considered making your main character a boy?

Make her a boy? What — are girls not allowed to be mean or aggressive or spiteful?

“Little Girl” by William Adolphe Bouguereau. Image CC.

Actually, they’re not. At least according to lots of reporting on social science research:

For Women Leaders, Likability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand
The Social Science Behind “Bossiness”
The Price Women Leaders Pay for Assertiveness–and How to Minimize It
What Does Social Science Say About How a Woman President Might Lead?

Time and again, the research shows that men are rewarded for being bossy, assertive, aggressive, etc. even to the point of being jerkbags. But women who exhibit similar behavior are relegated to the bitch-bin.

And at the risk of enraging just about every woman on the planet who spent $10 or more to see Wonder Woman — 2017 blockbuster film starring mostly women and directed by a woman — Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, AKA Diana Prince, fully perpetuates the good girl stereotype.

Yes, she has amazing physical strength and can seriously kick some Axis Power butt. But she is also completely, entirely, holistically good. In every interview and behind-the-scenes profile I have seen, both Gal Gadot (who plays Diana) and director Patty Jenkins rave about the character’s quintessential goodness. This suggests the thematic intent to portray a good woman with mighty powers. But I take this a step further and attest that the only reason Diana can be so powerful is because she is also so good. The two traits are diametrically and proportionately linked. In other words, were she less like Captain America and more like Deadpool, moviegoers would not like her even half as much.

Contemporary society does not punish Diana for her powers. They do not relegate her to the Island of Ms-Fit Bossypantsuits because she is a good girl.

Which wraps back to Gilly, who is entirely likable despite spending most of the book being entirely rotten. A real brat. She blows bubble-gum bombs in adult’s faces. She savors violent fantasies. She bullies other children. She hate crimes her teacher. She steals. She lies.

So the real question is how in the hell (to quote Gilly) does Paterson achieve this? How does she trick our societal radar? And is her technique one that other writers can master for their own works?

I absolutely believe the technique is transferable! (Alas, the same cannot be said for the rest of Paterson’s prowess.) Essentially, give the bad protagonist (AKA anti-hero) a vulnerability. A weakness. A gap in the armor. Director Tim Miller puts this to brilliant use in the opening sequences of Deadpool.

First the camera pulls back from an assortment of crayons and a little tape deck blasting music. Our anti-hero perches on the railing of an interstate overpass. He is drawing his own stick-figure comic doodles (of himself lopping the head of his arch nemesis) while his ankles pendulum. To top it all off, Deadpool is singing along to the tunes — specifically Salt n’ Pepa’s 1993 hip-hop hit “Shoop.”

Following a brief monologue (the kind usually reserved for villains), Deadpool goes on to commit some pretty heinous atrocities. Over the course of the entire movie, he proves to be something like a leotard-clad Gilly Hopkins: foul-mouthed, sadistic, sarcastic, even a tad soul-less on his revenge quest. But it doesn’t matter to viewers. They’ve already seen him be just a bit vulnerable with those crayons and outdated pop music. They’ve already seen his soft spot and said: Awwww!

Paterson introduces Gilly with a similar hint of vulnerability. When readers meet Gilly, she sits in the back of the social worker’s car, chewing a wad of pink bubble-gum. As the social worker lectures her, Gilly blows a gigantic bubble, which pops and sticks to her hair. The novel could have just as easily opened with Gilly in the car turning her tooth brush into a shank knife — an action that fully shows and supports Gilly’s bad girl nature — however, such a start would not have exposed her weakness. Like that gum, Gilly turns out to be full of hot air. Like that gum, she softens. And just like Deadpool, Gilly goes on to commit some pretty unforgivable acts, but readers are already on her side.

And to get them there, she did not have to be good. Only vulnerable. Only a bit soft. Neither are the same as “good.” Instead, Paterson enabled a female character to be simultaneously “bad” and sympathetic. She enabled readers to encounter a true human being, and in doing so, she gave them a taste of true humanity.

So what say you, writers? Shall we get to work? Shall we labor with love on our anti-hero protagonists, making them authentically flawed, not artificially good flavored? Let’s a make a world where writers bring a Deadpool character to critique and leave with the feedback…have you considered making your bad protagonist a girl? Better still, let’s make a world where girls and boys, men, women, and everyone between or beyond those gender categories can simply be what they are and nonetheless loved.

Upstream by Mary Oliver

Yea or nay: Humans, with all their mighty know-how, should alter the world and fix all that ails it. Yea or nay: Humans should sit back, only observe, and do their best to not interfere with natural processes, like National Geographic wildlife photographers.

Oliver, Mary. Upstream: Selected Essays. New York: Penguin, 2016. Print.

Summary: In a series of essays, Mary Oliver traces the riparian zone of our role in this monstrous, miraculous, moiling and mending world. Although some of the works were previously published, here they are recombined, juxtaposed with newer works to provoke fresh questions, perspectives, and mystification.

Critique: Whether through poetry or prose, Mary Oliver opens your eyes. Nay, she uses her arresting imagery and metaphors to perform an ocular transplant, bequeathing unto you eyes which will never see the world in the same  way. Ever. Again.

Take for instance that pendulous clock in the hall, with its white spider belly. As soon as you notice it, you realize you are and have always been stuck on time’s web, your flesh a feast in slow mastication. Or, what about that time of year when the world “smells like water in an iron cup”? Or the way egrets drink the light rays off the tops of pond water?

The world is full of splendors to be seen and felt and known. But that is not the only point Oliver is out to make. We are not just observers. We are animals, too. We hunger. We create. We destroy. In other words, we exist. But how are we to exist when all the actions centipeding in the shady soil beneath that concept threaten to sink this planet deeper into its naturally cataclysmic cycles?

I do not mean to say this collection is an open diatribe on global climate change. It isn’t. In her usual way, with her characteristic poise and grace, Oliver comes like a sunset shadow, her questions traveling a slender, irregular, delicate path over some very solid ground.

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

oliver_poetryhandbookMuch like a quark, this book is small yet packed with the powers to either grip or unravel the universe.

Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. New York: Harvest, 1994. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (craft book)

Summary: Winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, and all-around linguistic seductress Mary Oliver shares her insights on the nature and construct of poetry, language, and the communication that takes place beneath the words on the page.

Critique: Like her poetry, Oliver’s handbook is brief, to-the-point, and powerful. She gets right the to point and does not dilly-dally with a lot of rhetorical set-up or explanatory embellishments, as the typical poetry textbook or writing craft book might. Her examples are salient. The writing is unquestionably clear.

Writers equipped with this text will gain invaluable lessons including: the difference between a rock and stone as implied by their phonics rather than their geology; the Romeo and Juliet love affair that is the writing process, a drool-inducing analysis of Robert Frost’s poetry; the liquids and mutes of the English language and how they can combine effectively; and one of the clearest explanations I have ever found on poetic construction, from scansion to stresses, from meters to feet.