"Into the Body of Another": Mary Oliver and the Poetics of Becoming Other

By Graham, Vicki | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview
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"Into the Body of Another": Mary Oliver and the Poetics of Becoming Other


Graham, Vicki, Papers on Language & Literature


"We belong to the moon," says Mary Oliver, and "the most/thoughtful among us dreams/of hurrying down...into the body of another" (49-50). We dream, we long, and some of us believe that we can step outside of ourselves and enter the body of another. But Western culture discourages these yearnings and demands individualism and the formation of strong ego boundaries and stable identities. Unlike the traveller of Leslie Marmon Silko's "Story from Bear Country," we do not hear the bear's call; we do not see our "footprints/in the sand" become bear prints, nor do we see fur cover our bodies, "dark shaggy and thick" (204-05). Yet we are conscious, too, of our potential not just to cross the boundaries between ourselves and others, but to be divided within ourselves. We encounter a variety of theories--feminist, psychoanalytic, cultural--that tell us identity is multiple and the boundaries of the self are unstable.

"Pull yourself together," my mother used to say, and I would groupe wildly, hoping to catch even one of the selves that spun around me. But I have never been able to pull myself together, and works of art that tempt me to drop the fiction of singularity and invite me to enter the body of another fascinate me. Mary Oliver's American Primitive is one such work. The poems in this collection offer many bodies for us to inhabit; we can become, by turns, bear, fish, whale, swamp, and Pan. We can run with the fox, fly with the owl, dig with the mole, and finally, losing all outward form, dissolve into the totality of nature.

Oliver's celebration of dissolution into the natural world troubles some critics: her poems flirt dangerously with romantic assumptions about the close association of women with nature that many theorists claim put the woman writer at risk.(1) But for Oliver, immersion in nature is not death: language is not destroyed and the writer is not silenced. To merge with the nonhuman is to acknowledge the self's mutability and multiplicity, not to lose subjectivity. But few feminists have wholeheartedly appreciated Oliver's work, and though some critics have read her poems as revolutionary reconstructions of the female subject, others remain skeptical "that identification with nature can empower women" (Bonds 1).(2)

Despite this implicitly proscriptive criticism, the desire to immerse oneself in and become part of the natural world persists in women's poetry and novels. Twenty years of feminist, deconstructive, and linguistic theory have not weaned writers like Oliver, Marilynne Robinson, and Susan Griffin (to name just a few) from what skeptics might label a naive belief in the possibility of intimate contact with the non-linguistic world of nature and a confidence in the potential of language to represent that experience. The persistence of this belief suggests to me that we might try reading these works differently. Rather than viewing them as dangerously regressive or as subtextually emancipatory, we might read them as descriptions and enactments of what Walter Benjamin calls the "mimetic faculty."

According to Benjamin, the mimetic faculty is one of our most precious gifts. Important as sight or hearing, our capacity to mime, Benjamin explains, surpasses nature's, and is directly linked to our cultural activities:

Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man's. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role. (333) The speakers in Oliver's poems not only exhibit a "powerful compulsion...to become and behave like something else"; they also act out the process of becoming something else, inviting readers to join them.

In "The Mimetic Faculty," Benjamin asserts that the human capacity to mime has eroded in recent times, but in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" he suggests that modern technology, particularly the moving picture camera, can help us recover that capacity, bringing us into a new kind of perceptual contact with the world through mechanical reproduction.

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