Ryan Cull: On "The Lilies Break Open.."

Oliver's "The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water" is a fascinating point-of-entry into contemporary environmentally-focused poetry, since it proudly and knowingly wears as battle scars the whole history of nature writing from the past two centuries.

Oliver knows the danger of romanticism, with its temptation to enter nature and poetically domesticate it in order to leave with a moral lesson. But she also knows the danger of post-modern irony, with its temptation to withdraw entirely from the reality of a physical environment into the shadows of solipsism. Navigating between such extremes, her high achievement is to approach nature through poetic discourse, but in a way that almost allows nature to talk back. In this manner, her poem openly and nostalgically engages the Romantic tradition, then shifts to a more self-aware, post-modern critique, before finally recontextualizing both stances in the face of biological realities.

Oliver’s poem begins, however, well within the bounds of the lyrical subject before gradually challenging it. With its shaped stanzas, precise attention to biological detail, and adventurousness of metaphor, "The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water" is reminiscent of Marianne Moore, a distinguished nature poet herself. Like Moore, Oliver has the uncanny ability to heighten our awareness of a sense of difference towards things that might be considered otherwise rather mundane. Lilies on a pond, though always pleasing to the eye, are hardly surprising or exotic. But with a kind of time-lapse poetics, we witness within the course of fifteen lines the entirety of lilies’ development, from being submerged in the primal "broth of life" until "they break open over the dark water." This process is described almost entirely by a remarkable sequence of metaphors. The lilies emerge from the "mud-hive[s]" of photosynthetic "gas sponge[s]" as "dream bowl[s]" with green leaves. Oliver suitably suggests the image of a magician as she briefly describes the flower protruding from its bulb as an almost-human "fist" holding a "wand." Then, just as quickly, she drops this anthropomorphism by describing the petals as bird-like "beaks of lace."

Though one does sense in all of this the Romantic lyrical subject’s taxonomic urge, a need to see all, to describe and to define into comprehension, one can also begin to sense in Oliver’s kaleidoscopic metaphoricity the limits of this urge. And when the speaker finally appears, it is almost as if in an afterthought: "and there you are/ on the shore." Even as she openly admits to the temptation "to attach [the lilies] to an idea/ some news of your own life," she also quickly recognizes that the lilies are "slippery and wild" - a fine line that is doubly true, since it describes both a natural and an epistemic fact.

Oliver, however, goes beyond this questioning of the efficacy of the lyric subject, almost as if she senses that this move is becoming itself a bit of a well-worn post-modern convention. Instead, in her enigmatic final stanzas, she finds that these lilies are


devoid of meaning, they are

                simply doing,

                            from the deepest


spurs of their being

                what they are impelled to do

                            every summer.

                                        And so, dear sorrow, are you.


Here she boldly tries, at first, to identify that which separates humanity from the rest of nature. The lilies that she sees are "simply doing/ from the deepest/ spurs of their being." Humans, on the other hand, want to add a middle term between this "being" and "doing": we look for "meaning." But the lilies themselves (and indeed all of nature) are "devoid" of this "meaning" of human manufacture. That which we prize most in nature, that which we expect it to provide for us, thus, is the very thing that is not present in nature to begin with.

The final line, "And so, dear sorrow, are you," with its sudden analogy between the lilies and the poetic self, adds an additional turn of the screw. On the one hand, it seems to suggest with its sentimentality that, as the Romantics hoped, we are indeed fundamentally joined to nature. But Oliver’s surprising reinscription of Romantic rhetoric cannot fully belie the semantic content of her poem’s argument. For having just questioned the very reality of poetic "meaning," she here is not envisioning a transcendental epiphany bridging the gap between the human subject and nature. Nor is the "meaning" that we madly search for anything so grand as an individual’s post-modern solipsisitic delusions. Instead, Oliver’s melancholy conclusion seems paradoxically to be a sentimentally unsentimental admission that humanity and nature are united by a kind of genetic determinism. In reality, we, like the lilies, are also merely following the impulses of "being" and "doing." And this genetic script that we are "impelled" to follow is only slightly more complex than those of the lilies, capable of producing poems rather than flowers.

While Mark Doty correctly notes that Oliver’s poem reveals "a certain desire to be no one, a longing to merge, unconscious, with the earth and stones and pond-mud she loves," it is not entirely clear that he fully recognizes what Oliver knowingly gives up as she seeks to achieve this. Nor is it clear, as Vicki Graham suggests, that for Oliver "to merge with the non-human is [only] to acknowledge the self's mutability and multiplicity, not to lose subjectivity" (353). Quite to the contrary, the conclusion of "Lilies" seems to contend that, in order to gain the long sought-after connection with nature, to cross the boundary between poetic subject and environmental object, Oliver finds that she must cede the reality of her own independent subjecthood to a larger biological, genetic reality. This is a bold proposition and also perhaps a dangerous one, for it is unclear where it leaves a poet like Oliver, who seems also to have certain residual, post-Romantic investments. Perhaps fine, albeit conflicted, poems like this one make it clear that we are at a turning point in our literary understanding of nature. Maybe a lesson can even be generalized: the poetic subject, as it has yet been realized by most writers, cannot happily coexist with nature. Which, in turn, might suggest a dramatic course of action: is it time to change the subject or drop it altogether?


Copyright 2001 by Ryan Cull


Criticism Overview
Title Ryan Cull: On "The Lilies Break Open.." Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Ryan Cull Criticism Target Mary Oliver
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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