The Leaf and the Cloud is a poem of welcome, a poem of amazement, a poem-of-don’t-know. Oliver’s book-length poem, preoccupied with the relationship between the work of the poet and the work of the world, offers fresh insights into one of the most compelling voices in contemporary American poetry.
In the first of its seven sections Oliver welcomes the reader “to the silly, comforting poem” (1). Yet her immediate concern is with what the poem is not. It is not “the sunrise, / which is a red rinse, / which is flaring all over the eastern sky; nor is it the “trees, or the burrow burrowing into the earth.” Oliver concludes, “The poem is not the world. / It isn’t even the first page of the world” (5).
Much of the poem is devoted to exploring what Charles Olson once called a poet’s “stance toward reality.” Its dialectical rhythms register this ongoing inquiry. “And I am thinking: maybe looking and listening / is the real work. / Maybe the world, without us, / is the real poem.” Maybe. “Would it be better to sit in silence? / To think everything, to feel everything, to say nothing?” (11). Maybe not, Oliver presses, as ours is not “the way of the orange gourd,” or “the habit of the rock in the river.” No, “The nature of man is not the nature of silence” (12).
Rather we must labor between the leaves and the clouds, singing “for the veil that never lifts” (15). “It is the nature of stone / to be satisfied. / It is the nature of water / to want to be somewhere else” (41). For Oliver, human nature consists in the dual urgencies of both stone and water—at rest and rest-less. “It is our nature not only to see / that the world is beautiful / but to stand in the dark, under the stars, / or at noon, in the rainfall of night, / half-mad, saying over and over: / what does it mean, that the world is beautiful— / what does it mean?” (42).
This terrifyingly precise question is rooted in Oliver’s conviction that “A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world / and the responsibilities of your life” (6). So, Oliver coaxes, go out into the world. “Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away. / Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance. / In the glare of your mind, be modest. / And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling. / Live with the beetle and the wind” (25).
Oliver has mastered the art of living with—beholden to the dance of what is certain with what is not. “In my mind, the arguers never stop— / the skeptic and the amazed. / The general and the particular, in their / uneasy relationship” (25–6). Oliver’s ease is uneasiness. And her readers, once again, will be grateful.