Most of the 18 brief, beautiful essays in Upstream have appeared individually in other collections by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver. Gathered together here, these prose works provide an interior roadmap to her development as one of America’s most accomplished—and most popular—poets of nature and transcendence.
The title essay, for example, is an impressionistic remembrance of straying away from her family as a young child, wandering upstream and becoming lost. Within a few short pages, it becomes an exhilarating celebration of being lost in nature. The essay concludes: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
Attention and devotion are what readers have come to expect from Oliver’s poems. The same traits are evident in her prose. In the astonishing “Swoon,” she watches with great curiosity and sympathy as a female spider produces eggs, nurtures her newborns and painstakingly traps a cricket—“with a humped, shrimplike body and whiplike antennae and jumper’s legs”—in her web. Questions arise in her mind about what she is witnessing, and she writes: “I know I can find [answers] in some book of knowledge, of which there are many. But the palace of knowledge is different from the palace of discovery, in which I am, truly, a Copernicus. The world is not what I thought, but different, and more! I have seen it with my own eyes!”
Other essays contemplate her poetic and intellectual forebears—the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and poets Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and William Wordsworth. Still others relate her soulful encounters with nature during her walks in the woods and along the shore near her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. These places have often been sources of inspiration for her poems and will be familiar to many of her readers. So the final essay about leaving Provincetown, nuanced as it is, comes as a shock.
Oliver, now in her 80s, has moved to Florida. And she remains a joyful advocate for the palace of discovery.