House of Light by Mary Oliver

House of Light by Mary Oliver, simply put, is a contemplation of beauty. The most common theme in the book is that of nature—in fact, this is the common theme in all of Oliver’s poetry. Some other concentrations in House of Light are religion, which Oliver addresses through her frequent references to Jesus and Buddha, and the contrasts between life and death, and light and darkness. Some recurring images include owls and lilies, as well as location poems that involve travel. Oliver plays with form in House of Light; she uses indented quatrains and centered stanzas in addition to other, more basic forms. I also noticed that Oliver seemed to be considering the definition of poetry, and what qualifies a work as a poem. Altogether I found the book to be extremely moving—Oliver is a master at describing simplistic natural beauty and her insight is compelling.

One of my favorite poems, called “Singapore,” addresses several of the themes I mention above. The poem is a narration of the author’s experience in an airport bathroom. It has an uneven stanza structure, ranging from two to eight lines per verse. Oliver effectively uses line to add to her varied sentence structure, which gives the poem a conversational tone. The main theme of this work is the concept that a poem doesn’t need to be about something that is typically aesthetically pleasing or “nice” to be beautiful. At the beginning of the poem, Oliver writes: “A poem should always have birds in it./ …A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain/ rising and falling./ A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem” (Oliver 72). The poet testifies to the fact that readers see poems as vehicles of beauty, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t find beauty in unpleasantness. As Oliver continues to describe the actions of a working Singaporean woman, she reveals to the reader that an ordinary life is beautiful; that these simple, fleeting moments in gas stations or grocery stores have places in poems, too. Oliver ends her poem by reinforcing this main theme, claiming that “Singapore” is “filled with trees, and birds” (73).

Another poem in House of Light that stands out to me is “Moccasin Flowers”—it is a very typical Oliver poem in that it deals with a specific aspect of nature. The poem is split into nine stanzas of four lines, each indented in a staggered pattern. Oliver effectively uses enjambment in this poem to, creating movement and mimicked growth of the moccasin flowers. What strikes me most about this poem is the imagery, including lines such as the following: “mossy hooves/ of dreams,” “the lamb-lips/ of oblivion,” and “the pink lungs of their bodies/ enter the fire of the world” (66-7). Wow! It is images like these that make me want to write! The theme of “Moccasin Flowers” is somewhat obscure, but it seemed to be a commentary on love, and admiration. Oliver states at the beginning of the poem that all her life she has “loved/ more than one thing,” (66), but loves best the new, budding flowers as they push their blossoms into an unfriendly world. This message is characteristic of Oliver—she possesses a true respect for nature and a certain admiration (which goes hand in hand with a lack of complete understanding). The poet’s use of imagery in this work helps to portray its overriding tone of hopefulness.

In conclusion, I could basically go on and on about how amazing House of Light is! I think anyone could enjoy this book; it’s the perfect companion to a summer day on a hammock. As corny as that sounds, you’ll see what I mean if you read it. Oliver’s perfect imagery and powerful conceits combine to make this book a truly awesome experience.