Book Review: Dream Work

Dream Work, by Mary Oliver

Being at least somewhat of a fan of the author’s writing [1], I found this to be an intriguing if somewhat troubling book of poetry.  Oliver has a reputation as being a nature poet, but this does not do justice to her musings, and this selection of 45 poems, most of whom were previously published in various magazines suggests something of the difficult work of one’s dream life.  These poems do not outright say what sort of dream work the author is focused on, for Oliver is far too discreet of a poetess to simply state what she is feeling and what she is struggling with, but they do at least suggest some effort at recovery from a traumatic past.  Of course, as a reader, I bring a certain amount of bias into the process of reading poetry, given my own personal past, but this book is one whose hints and allusions to traumatic incidents in history certainly encourage that line of thinking.  As it is in dream work where the mind/brain does its effort at weaving one’s memories into novel stories and allowing one to heal and recover, it is significant that the author alludes to dreams as work in this book.

For the most part, at least on the surface, the poems suggest the poetess’ longstanding concerns with travel and creation and history, but the poems are often connected with others in a more complicated fashion than meets the eye.  The book is divided into two parts, and there are a lot of cases where some poems appear to be paired with others.  For example, there is a poem about dogfish and another about starfish.  There is a morning poem and also a poem called sunrise.  There is a poem about the river and another at sea.  And so on it does.  The author talks about the progress of love being slow, alluding to difficulties with trust and intimacy, and there are poems on the anniversary of the Holocaust as well as others resulting from travels to Vienna that remind her of various classical composers like Beethoven and Schumann.  A poem about driving through a reservation is followed by another one where she wonders what tribe she belongs to, reminders of the historical trauma of Indian removal.  Other poems like “Rage” and “Shadows” suggest dark emotions and memories and experiences that have to be dealt with, again with the implication that the poetess’ personal trauma causes her to muse on larger historical traumas as well.

Perhaps it is this sort of urbane and sophisticated way of dealing with the difficulties of life that makes Oliver’s poems so well-regarded by so many.  To be sure, not all of these poems are great, but the works as a whole are deeply moving and suggest the author lowering the walls of her own emotional reserve to allow the reader into her own thought process by which she attempts to understand and make sense of the world around her and within her.  As quite a few of these poems deal with trudging and make it seem as if writing poems as she did was definitely an act of considerable effort, one imagines that the aspect of healing from one’s personal past as well as from the larger collective past of humanity is indeed something of a trudge that requires a great deal of work.  One wonders the extent to which this book’s readers bring their own experiences and memories into the process of making sense of these opaque but thoughtful poems.  It is perhaps inevitable that Oliver’s writings encourage the reader to believe that there is a great deal of autobiography as well as observation in these poems, with the suggestion that it was indeed a great deal of work for her to deal with life with anything approaching equanimity of spirit.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/24/book-review-upstream/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/24/book-review-felicity/

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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