How close have you come to dying? What value do you place on your own life? Mary Oliver poses these very deep and thought-provoking questions to the reader in her short poem, Alligator Poem.In the poem, the persona has an experience in which she comes very close to death: an alligator walks by her as she drank some water out of a river while sitting on a riverbank. Oliver describes it in this way: I didn’t understand/I drank up to the very moment it came/crashing toward me/its tail flailing/like a bundle of swords/slashing the grass/and the inside of its cradle-shaped mouth/gaping/and rimmed with teeth and/that’s how I almost died/of foolishness/in beautiful Florida.Clearly she has had a near-death experience. The language used in describing that passage shows true fear: tail flailing/like a bundle of swords/slashing the grass. This experience has exposed the persona to the very real possibilities of death.
This experience also was most likely the personas first near-death experience. Oliver indicates this with the statement thats how I almost died/of foolishness/in beautiful Florida. People who have many near-death experiences usually always exercise caution in situations that could be fatal. In this situation, she walked directly up to the river bank and stuck her nose in, and started drinking ( I didnt understand/I drank up to the very moment it came).
The rest of the poem goes on to show how the persona changed and reacted from this near-death experience. She clearly takes a new value for life away from her first near-death experience: but about how I rose from the ground/and saw the world as if for the second time/the way it really is. The transformation that she shows after the experience can be attributed to the new value that she places on life, which before the near-death experience was much lower. Most likely, she will exercise caution further in the future.
Another aspect that the persona takes away from this experience is her acknowledgement of the living qualities of nature. Oliver explains this with the passage directly after the description of the rebirth: The water, that circle of shattered glass/healed itself with a slow whisper/and lay back/with the back-lit light of polished steel/and the birds, in the endless waterfalls of the trees/shook open the snowy pleats of their wings, and drifted away.The persona now sees living value of nature, and how it is not merely inanimate objects, but a being just like us. Before the near-death experience, the persona of the poem was blind to this truism. Unfortunately, it took a bout with death to expose these facts, but it is equally important that she now understands this.
This newfound value is already evident in the personas life. Oliver makes sure to show the personas transformation in concrete details: I reached out/I picked the wild flowers from the grass around me/blue stars/and blood-red trumpets/on long green stems/for hours in my trembling hands they glittered/like fire. The persona picks the flowers and realizes their living qualities, hence the simile to fire in the last line of the poem.
The poem contains many literary devices that Oliver uses to convey her message in the poem. The entire poem is a conceit, or extended metaphor, for a rebirthing process. Oliver gives us the blindness in the beginning of the poem when the persona foolishly walks up to the riverbank without any regard for the habitat of the animals that live in and around the river (e.g. the alligator), and the possible perils of an alligator encounter (e.g. death). Next was the near-death experience, as the alligator crossed paths with the persona, which caused the transformation. Finally, the rebirth occurs, and the changes in her life are occurring as soon as the rebirth happens.
Clearly, Mary Oliver illustrates the rebirthing process in her poem Alligator Poem. She beautifully demonstrates this process with personification, conceit, and metaphors. She is a great poet, and Alligator Poem is a great example of her tremendous body of work.
Oliver, Mary. “Alligator Poem.” 50 Great Poems and Short Stories. Random House, 1990.
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