A review: Mary Oliver’s ‘Upstream’

By Stephanie Wescott

Mary Oliver’s ‘Upstream’, a collection of personal essays, is immersive. Surprising in its offering of everyday musings, Oliver’s wisdoms are simple, clawing you out of the structured world and into the wild one, and provocative, compelling you to view your life in abstract ways.

Oliver’s idea of the ‘third self’ appealed to me as a comforting realisation. That there is a self within us that rallies against the confines placed upon it. It is rebellious; a nonconformist. In me, it is more a tyrant than an occasional visitor. It presents itself and demands to be noticed. To have its needs met; commanding assent. It will accept nothing but acquiescence.

It is the self that sends me to bed with a book for hours. Thrashes against monotony and routine. Denies a stringent obedience to the hours, the counting of them, the noticing of them. There comes a moment in the throes of my everyday life where the third self can no longer be contained, and for as many days as I can allow, my conditioned, routined self retreats, and I immerse in dreaming, and thinking. The third self takes hold. Its presence is always welcome, always a relief, but always fleeting, too.

But our lives are structured in such a way that this self must be suppressed. The third self is the enemy of measurable productivity, it cannot be forced into a capitalist framework. It is the self we allow to emerge only so often, and then it must be forced back into submission so that we can fit ourselves back into the lives we inhabit. Those who live with their third self at the centre are the bohemians, the ones we often condemn out of envy.

I closed Oliver’s book resolving to honour the third self when she demands I listen, but amidst all the noise she is so often stifled.