why you shouldn’t read Mary Oliver quite so much: “Singapore”

I see Mary Oliver a lot in pagan/naturalistic religion social media, and even in liturgical settings. With all the literally thousands of poets out there, I wish this were not the case. Her work hits all the right “nature buttons” but scratching beneath the surface I find not only banality but an active insistence on a self-centered perspective, all while being self-congratulatorily self aware as a “nature poet.”

There are a lot of bad Mary Oliver poems, but “Singapore” in on another level, perhaps because of its globalist, airport setting brings in issues of class and race that, well, only amplify the most problematic aspects of Oliver’s work:


In Singapore, in the airport, 
a darkness was ripped from my eyes. 
In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open. 
A woman knelt there, washing something
     in the white bowl.

Disgust argued in my stomach 
and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.

A poem should always have birds in it. 
Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings. 
Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees. 
A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain
     rising and falling. 
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.

When the woman turned I could not answer her face. 
Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together, and
     neither could win. 
She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this? 
Everybody needs a job.

Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem. 
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
     which is dull enough. 
She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as
     hubcaps, with a blue rag. 
Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing. 
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river. 
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life. 
And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop
     and fly down to the river.
This probably won’t happen. 
But maybe it will. 
If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?

Of course, it isn’t. 
Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only 
the light that can shine out of a life. I mean 
the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth, 
the way her smile was only for my sake; I mean 
the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

Stylistically of course, this is the “declarative sentences with line breaks” school of normative American poetics, which is very very hard to do in an interesting way. It’s possible, of course, but the voice here is full of aphorisms and a general blandness. Some people like clarity for its own sake, but clarity has to serve a purpose.

This post from a couple of years ago from Nicholas Liu sums up many of my feelings about the poem very well:

Awfully charitable of Oliver–I’m tired of this “speaker” pretence, to be honest–to accept working class POCs as part of the world. It’s such a comforting construction, too, the working class as “part of the world”, like lichen or wildebeest, loving their simple little lives. With “Singapore”…there’s no need for the middle to upper classes to try (and fail) to reconcile the displeasure they’d feel at doing a cleaner’s work for a cleaner’s pay with our collective gentleperson’s agreement that others should go on doing just that.

I should also add that Mary Oliver is all-too eager to “naturize” a worker on the bottom of the ladder:

She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river. 
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

(Seriously, I know people will think that these lines are profound…but how? This baffles me more than anything else.) What she’s doing here is treating another human being as animal, as river–but (and this is important) not from an animist perspective. Far from it. Because she is the one filling the poem “with trees, and birds.” Her own position is fixed, as observer, writer, and–ultimately–a transient, travelling back to the United States where she can write further poems and win awards.

The reader, of course, is supposed to do cartwheels over Oliver’s compassion and vision. But I call bullshit.

What is perhaps more readily apparent in “Singapore” is nonetheless present in nearly all of her work: an insistence on “the Mary Oliver show, starring Mary Oliver” at all costs, while at the same time deploying poetic strategies to make it seem like this is not the case at all, that she is, at all times, one with nature. I think this is the height of sanctimony, and not the good kind.

Broader thought: what does it mean that she’s so popular? What does it reveal about the assumptions of the communities that love her?

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