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A Literary Canvass of the Poem Oxygen by Mary Oliver

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A literary canvass of the poem Oxygen by Mary Oliver

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Everything needs it: bone, muscles, and even,

while it calls the earth its home, the soul.

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So the merciful, noisy machine

stands in our house working away in its

lung-like voice. I hear it as I kneel

before the fire, stirring with a

stick of iron, letting the logs

lie more loosely. You, in the upstairs room,

are in your usual position, leaning on your

right shoulder which aches

all day. You are breathing

patiently; it is a

beautiful sound. It is

your life, which is so close

to my own that I would not know

where to drop the knife of

separation. And what does this have to do

with love, except

everything? Now the fire rises

and offers a dozen, singing, deep-red

roses of flame. Then it settles

to quietude, or maybe gratitude, as it feeds

as we all do, as we must, upon the invisible gift:

our purest, sweet necessity: the air.

Mary Oliver wrote a poem titled “Oxygen”. The speaker of the poem is indicated to be the loved one and caretaker of the person that is ill, and since it is written in first person it, can be drawn that the speaker is Oliver herself talking about a personal experience. Although the poem is about someone who is seriously ill, the tone of the poem isn’t sad, it’s more so has a grateful and uplifting outlook. Grateful for the fact they are alive and they have a fondness, a love for the “sweet necessity”, air because its what keeps us alive. Furthermore, the speaker is uplifting because even though what is happening is sad, they have a very optimistic view of the whole situation. The key idea of this poem is that oxygen is a gift and a sole provider of life, and it is one of the most precious and beautiful things that we have that we often don’t take time to appreciate. And in a way she is sort of thanking air for the experiences and love that it let her and her loved one share.

In lines 1 through 5 Oliver explains that “everything needs” oxygen to survive, “bones, muscles, and even, while it calls the earth its home, the soul.” She chose the words “merciful, noisy machine” to describe the ventilator that the loved one who has breathing problems is using to stabilize them. In context, breathing is considered a “merciful” blessing since when need it to perform any task, and a “merciful” ventilator is still giving life to the ill loved one. Lines 5 through 8 displays imagery of the speaker tending to the fire downstairs. “I hear it as I kneel / before the fire, stirring with a / stick of iron…” creates the image of the speaker kneeling on both knees, leaning close to the fire with a fire poker, and “letting the logs lie more loosely,” or moving the wood around to help keep the fire burning longer. A connection can be made between the ill person’s breathing and the fire. Having trouble breathing is like a fire that doesn’t have enough wood to burn, without the necessity of keeping the fire burning it will die quickly, just like the ill person not having enough air to go into their lungs, they will expire sooner.

For lines 8 to 10 Mary Oliver shifts the perspective of the fire to the ill person. “You, in the upstairs room, / are in your usual position, leaning on your / right shoulder which aches,” provides us with the knowledge and image of where, “the upstairs room”, and what the ill person is doing, “leaning on…right shoulder.” This section is a direct tells of the situation, not ambiguous. In lines 11 through 13, “You are breathing / patiently; it is a / beautiful sound,” represent the meaning that the sound of the ill person’s breathing is beautiful because it is the sound that they are still living, it’s the sound of life. Proceeding to the rest of line 13 to the beginning of line 17:

It is

your life, which is so close

to my own that I would not know

where to drop the knife of

separation.

This connotes that the speaker cannot separate themselves from the their ill loved one. The connation of this passage is that they are inseparable to the point that they don’t “know where to drop the knife of separation.”

Lines 17 to 21 asserts “what does this have to do / with love?” and “now the fire rises and offers a dozen, singing, deep-red / rose flames.” This notably has the use of personification for the fire and has a deeper connection of the previous fire and breathing analogy. A fire will rise when it is provided with oxygen, life it was growing into a new form of life. Referring back to the ill loved one, when they take a breath it is a gift of just like a “dozen, singing, deep-red, roses”. The connection between the fire and life is that oxygen supports both of them. Lines 21 to the last line, 24, Oliver is giving her thanks and gratitude to the “invisible gift” of air. Air is sometimes underappreciated, but the fact of the matter it that we all need it to survive. In the end, she is thanking oxygen for the experiences it has let her have with loved one when they were once healthy and a vibrant character.

Above all, this explication fairly conveys the idea that oxygen is something that we don’t necessarily say we are grateful for, but it provides us with the ability to live. The discoveries I have made from this poem is that oxygen is underappreciated and it’s the main necessity that has been keeping us alive our whole lives. I definitely will be more thankful that I have oxygen to keep me breathing and living life to its fullest. Air is not to be taken for granted.

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