Devotions’: Poems From a ‘Wild and Precious Life

By Davin Faris, age 15, home-school, Frederick, Md.

The final book by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, “Devotions,” is nothing short of an abridged life’s work. Its contents span more than half a century, chosen by Oliver herself from 27 of her collections. Yet that scope is easy to forget; one poem follows the next with such completeness that they hardly feel separate at all, each one simply drawing focus to a different corner of the profound natural world that Oliver inhabits.

“Devotions” centers on the idea of finding answers in ordinary things, the everyday miracles that society has conditioned us to overlook. In truth, nothing Oliver writes about — from the sweetgrass to the wild geese to the dog in the snow — is insignificant. Rather, she renders it meaningful by finding such importance there. The greatest strength of Oliver’s poetry, though, is that she brings the reader into it as well. She doesn’t just recount experiences vividly; she beckons us to walk and wonder beside her. Then she asks of the reader in return, writing: “Did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything? And have you finally figured out what beauty is for? And have you changed your life?”

Oliver’s book is founded on such questions, almost accusations, that defy dismissal — after all, not answering is an answer in itself. Each pointed remark is a call for us to simply pay attention. God (or gods) may be invisible, Oliver contends, “but holiness is visible, entirely,” if only we seek it out. While the delicate imagery and starkly accurate metaphors of this collection make it a pleasure to read, it has far more substance to it. “Devotions” is a set of lessons on how to attend to the world, how to “keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” Its pages escort us through “the willows and the honey locust, […] the beech, the oaks and the pines,” past the thrush singing at twilight and to water that wakes our bones. It rejects all notions of separateness, superiority or rigidity. It encounters the divine in innumerable unlikely places, marked not by grandeur but by simplicity.

While her poems occasionally strain under their own whimsy and specificity, following the formula of her other works but lacking the same depth, “Devotions” remains, at its heart, a poignant meditation on experiencing “mysteries too marvelous to be understood.” By coupling the unanswerable with an astounding existential Gnosticism, Oliver reveals how the bare acts of living and noticing can embody prayers more powerfully than words. She urges us, with each verse, to mend the rift between ourselves and everything greater: “Love yourself,” she writes. “Then forget it. Then, love the world.”