The two books he lent me were American Primitive and Owls and Other Fantasies. I haven't read any other poetry by Mary Oliver, so I have no idea whether these represent her best work or only one period of her writing, but I must say I was quite impressed. I could see why she has won multiple awards for her work. Her poetry revolves around nature, history and often how people and relationships figure into both of them. Although some of her poems struck me more vividly than others, all of her poetry has very concrete imagery that effortlessly brings to mind the slices of scenes she is trying to bring to life. Each poem is like a photograph, capturing a moment in time, usually with the theme summarized by the very simple, often one- or two-word titles. The only thing that sometimes put me off from her poetry was her high usage of exclamation marks, which to me seemed to try to intentionally create an unnatural emphasis for the reader. But, other than that, I really enjoyed her style, which is composed of short lines and short stanzas. Most of her poems are short also, very rarely more than a page.
In American Primitive, there are are a number of historical poems as well as nature poems. While the historical ones were interesting, they weren't what most captured my interest. Some of my favorites included "August" (about berry picking), "The Bobcat," "Tasting the Wild Grapes" (which, oddly enough, brought to mind "The Tyger" by William Blake), "Flying" (about being on a plane and seeing a compelling stranger), "Postcard from Flamingo" (about missing someone distant), "An Old Whorehouse," "The Fish"... well, the list goes on. I could probably fully name half the poems out of the collection.
In Owls and Other Fantasies, the poems are all about birds and nature; while I enjoyed them, this might be one problem I have with themed collections by the same author/poet (and one thing I've found myself in writing poetry) - it can be easy to get stuck on a motif or repeat phrases or imagery, especially with such similar inspiration. While I also enjoyed this collection, I much preferred American Primitive, as it had a wider scope and breadth of themes.
Ms. Oliver's turn of phrase creates a cornucopia of imagery, despite her sometimes sparse style. I would highly recommend her writing to anyone who enjoys poets such as Robert Frost or Margaret Atwood. Ms. Oliver has a number of books published, so I know I'll be picking up more work by her in the future.