Book Review: Felicity

Felicity, by Mary Oliver

More than a decade ago, when I lived in Tampa Bay, I remember reading a review for Melissa Etheridge’s album “Lucky,” when the reviewer commented that the singer-songwriter really wanted everyone listening the album to know that she was lucky in love.  I got the same feeling reading this book, not only that the author was really interested in conveying her felicity about a romantic relationship, but also that she was particularly coy about the details that would flesh out this happiness in love.  Although I am by no means an expert on love poetry [1], from time to time I find myself reading such works and feeling compelled to ponder on what they have to say about their approach to the question of love.  For while it is obvious that the author was deeply in love while writing this collection of poems, it is also obvious that her approach is in many cases devoid of detail and commentary, except of how rapturously she feels, which is not something I find personally all that interesting.  That is not to say that this is a bad collection of poems–far from it–only to say that the author herself does not write the sort of works that are easiest to appreciate for a poet like myself, and I think there are at least several reasons for this.

This book, like books of poetry in general, is somewhat short at under 100 pages, even shorter when you consider that almost half of the pages are blank with the poems only showing up on the right side of the book except for those few that run over a page in length.  The poems are divided into three sections:  The Journey, Love, and Felicity.  In general, the poems are heavily slanted towards romantic poetry, the sections have quotes from Rumi that fit the mysticism of the poetess’ approach, and where Oliver is not rhapsodizing about her romance, there are plenty of poems that deal with her more usual nature poetry with reflections on Indian River (her current home), roses, leaves and blossoms, a missing meadowlark, a creek, swans, the morning, a pond, late spring, and so on.  Some of the poems show some real flair, such as this example, “No, I’d Never Been To This Country”:

No, I’d never been to this country
before.  No, I didn’t know where the roads
would lead me.  No, I didn’t intend to turn back (49).”

Being the sort of reviewer that feels compelled to try to understand the rationale behind the approach of a writer to the topics of his or her literary creativity, I offer a few reasons why the author’s indirect approach to discussing love strikes me as more than a little bit coy.  For one, there appears to be at least something related to gender in the approach.  Men are noted for being particularly visual (at least statistically, relative to women), while women are often considered to be more relational in their approach, and this collection of poetry certainly bears that out, as even when Oliver is talking about animals and aspects of creation, she is more concerned with questions of relationship than she is with painting a visual picture for her readers.  Additionally, at least part of the coyness the author approaches love is due to the fact that she wishes her Sapphic odes to maintain a certain amount of discretion, which is probably for the best.  It is troubling that the author considers her romance to be a combination of holy and physical bliss, a verdict I cannot personally agree with.  That said, there is a great deal of skill and accomplishment in these poems even if its sentiments are not ones I can endorse.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to Book Review: Felicity

  1. Pingback: Book Review: House Of Light | Edge Induced Cohesion

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