The Leaf and the Cloud: A Poem

Mary Oliver, Author Da Capo Press $22 (72p) ISBN 978-0-306-80993-4
Oliver's seven-part book-length poem takes its title from Ruskin: ""Between the earth and man arose the leaf. Between the heaven and man came the cloud."" Oliver's speaker meditates on her own mortality, feels her body ""rising through the water/ not much more than a leaf,"" and declares that she ""believes in God,/ though she has no word for it."" Wandering wide-eyed through poem, book and world, she can seem too obviously faux na ve, more stentorian than Marianne Moore-like: ""my mother, alas, alas,/ did not always love her life,/ heavier than iron it was/ as she carried it in her arms/ from room to room,/ oh, unforgettable!"" Indeed, many of the interrogatives here seem to come right out of a children's book (""Did you know that the ant has a tongue/ with which to gather in all that it can/ of sweetness?// Did you know that?"") as do the apostrophes: ""and will you find yourself finally wanting to forget/ all enclosures, including// the enclosure of yourself, o lonely leaf."" Oliver at her best is less self-consciously playful, whether considering ""the mosquito's/ dark dart,/ flushing and groaning"" or ""the big owl, shaking herself/ out of the pitchpines."" But preciousness mars the volume in section after section, undermining fresh utterances--""I will sing for the Jains and their careful brooms./ I will sing for the salt and the pepper in their little towers on the clean table""--with a cartoonlike silliness: ""I will sing for the two coyotes who came at me with their strong teeth/ and then, at the last moment, began to smile,"" or worse, with banal abstractions: ""I will sing for what is in front of the veil, the floating light./ I will sing for what is behind the veil-light, light, and more light."" While the speaker begins many of the lines in humility, she inevitably gets caught up in the wonder and frenzy of her own creations, making this book seem more like an ecstatic one-off than a substantial new collection from a Pulitzer Prize winner. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 10/02/2000
Release date: 10/01/2000
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