For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week Megan Mayhew Bergman, whose story “The Heirloom” appears in the Fall 2021 issue, examines a passage from “An Ode to Provincetown” by Mary Oliver.
I know the traps and disclaimers about Mary Oliver—that she’s too accessible, that the work is somehow too tender—but I assume most of these cynics heard Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” or “The Summer Day” at a wedding or funeral and read no further. Popularity is not a crime; neither is allowing readers into a work or an idea. One might choose instead to see a literary bridge as an act of generosity.
Anyone who paints Oliver as soft hasn’t read her oeuvre, particularly her essays on owls, which are incisive and savage, the work of a true observer. Holly Prado once wrote for the Los Angeles Times Book Review that Oliver’s work “touches a vitality in the familiar that invests it with a fresh intensity,” and later that it understands the “wonder and pain of nature.” Has any literary perspective from the eighties aged better?
I teach Oliver because her connection to place—particularly Provincetown—is deep and sincere. In an era where environmental awareness is now fashionable and marketable, it’s easy to pen and sell a fast and shallow work that laments environmental degradation. But with Oliver, this perspective was earned over decades of awareness and engagement, after fifty years of walks in the dunes of Truro and along the shores of Provincetown.
You can feel Oliver’s connection to place in the poem “Coming Home,” in which she writes:
When we are driving, in the dark,
on the long road
to Provincetown, which lies empty
for miles, when we’re weary,
when the buildings
and the scrub pines lose
their familiar look,
I imagine us rising
from the speeding car.
I imagine us seeing
everything from another place—the top
of one of the pale dunes
or the deep and nameless
fields of the sea—
and what we see is the world
that cannot cherish us
but which we cherish.
Her clarity and lack of affectation invite readers into the work. Here is a woman unafraid of letting the world see her wonder and humility.
When I read Upstream, Oliver’s last collection of essays published in 2016, I knew she felt the planet’s changes in her blood, but as witnessed through a landscape she’d tracked for decades. The collection’s final essay, “An Ode to Provincetown,” is elegiac without being sentimental. Midway through the essay, Oliver writes the following paragraph:
And then the terrible change began. The great rafts of fish began to diminish. The satisfaction of a day’s work also began to vanish. Overfishing, climate change, and little boats that were growing older every year were the causes. In other towns, larger boats were built to travel farther out to sea, something the Provincetown fleet could not do.
When I teach students poetry or lyric essay, I ask them to look for the “turn”—the place in the work where the writer sticks a knife between your ribs and twists it. Oliver writes simply into the devastating truth that the town she once loved—her home—has changed irrevocably. And then: “A town cannot live on dreams.”
Oliver addresses overfishing and climate change with short strokes, never falling into melodrama, and records the resulting change in the nature of her hometown, avoiding the trap of righteousness: “There is no blame in this,” she writes of the town’s shift from an economy built on fishing to an identity based on tourism, “The town had to find another way to live.”
What we can learn here, as writers, is that serious study pays off. In her final book, Oliver records a seismic shift in her understated, frank way—years before it was fashionable to address climate change directly in literature. She shows the interconnectedness between person and place, economic health and planetary health.
The lesson here is one of authenticity and clarity. Together, and through Oliver’s pen, they are devastating.