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After such a tumultuous 2020, there was nothing more I wanted out of my new year than some words of hope and wisdom to help me through the start of 2021, and I found exactly that, funnily enough, in one of my Christmas presents. Whilst it’s nothing new that I, as an English student, should receive mainly books as holiday gifts, Mary Oliver’s Devotions has to be one of the best presents I’ve ever received. 

 

Mary Oliver was an award-winning American poet who had been publishing her work since she was 28, but sadly passed away in only 2019. Having published a great number of poetry books in her lifetime, Devotions is a large collection that compiles pieces, carefully chosen by Oliver herself, from across her literary career, sectioned into a timeline of her smaller collections. From Felicity in 2015, all the way to her first book No Voyage and Other Poems from 1963. Mary Oliver is known in the poetry world for her simple and yet astoundingly thought-provoking work, a figure whose words are rooted deeply in her love for nature and for living a quiet and intentional life. I managed to complete the entire collection in just under a week because I was so drawn into the world of Oliver’s musings, and she has very quickly taken up a special residence in my heart.

 

Through her work, Mary Oliver stresses the significance of appreciating even the small things in life and encourages her readers to move through the world with kindness and consideration through her beautifully thoughtful lines. Perhaps one of the best examples of this can be found in the section ‘Red Bird’ from the 2008 collection, in a poem called ‘Invitation’. Halfway through the poem, Oliver states that ‘it is a serious thing / just to be alive / on this fresh morning / in this broken world,’ an acknowledgement that so many of us forget and take for granted. The large collection also boasts some small pieces of poetic prose. One of my favourite pieces comes from the 2010 section ‘Swan’ and reads, ‘If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be […] Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy was not made to be a crumb.’ Although most of Oliver’s work reads with a quietly hopeful tone, even her repertoire is not without the kind of darkness that we all experience at some point. At the end of a prose piece called ‘August’, she writes about her sick neighbour: ‘June, July, August. Every day, we hear their laughter. I think of the painting by van Gogh, the man in the chair. Everything wrong, and nowhere to go. His hands over his eyes.’ The long collection is thus an amalgam of considerate writing about the intricacies of life.

 

And as we continue into 2021, I end with a few more lines of Oliver’s wisdom offered from the poem ‘North Country’: ‘You listen and you know / you could live a better life than you do, be / softer, kinder. And maybe this year you will / be able to do it.

 

Niamh Parr

Nottingham '21

Final year English student drinking multiple cups of tea a day and trying to keep up with my ever growing to-read list
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