Thursday, June 26, 2014

Red Bird, by Mary Oliver

I have read some of Mary Oliver's poems in various anthologies, but Red Bird is the first collection of her work that I have read (and she has published quite a number since her first book in 1963). i gather from researching her work a bit that nature is one of her favorite topics, and she returns to it often in this collection. She writes often about birds--the titular red bird as well as herons, owls, crows, nuthatches,  and hummingbirds--but also reflects on polar bears, foxes, lilies, and other denizens of the natural world. Although I am not sure companion animals--i.e. dogs--qualify as "nature," but Oliver also writes about her dog Percy. One of these poems includes the following lines on the examined life, something I have quite often questioned the value of: "Emerson, I am trying to live,/as you said we must, the examined life./But there are days I wish/there was less in my head to examine,/not to speak of the busy heart. How/would it be to be Percy, I wonder, not/thinking, not weighing anything, just running forward."

Oliver also writes about aging, ambition, faith, and love. Many of these poems are quite lovely, reflecting a wisdom that a woman in her 70s has gained through a long and well-lived life. For example, consider "Summer Morning":
I implore you,
it's time to come back
from the dark,

it's morning,
the hills are pink
and the roses
whatever they felt

in the valley of night
are opening now
their soft dresses,
their leaves

are shining.
Why are you laggard?
Sure you have seen this
a thousand times,

which isn't half enough.
Let the world
have its way with you,
luminous as it is

with mystery
and pain--
graced as it is
with the ordinary.

This collection also includes a number of poems that are political, something I take to be unusual from what I have read about Oliver. Clearly, however, environmental degradation, international conflict, and disparities between rich and poor are on her mind. "Of the Empire" is a scathing description of how our culture will be remembered ("a culture that feared death and adored power"), while "Iraq" is a sad rumination on the picture of a young Iraqi killed in the war.

Not all of the poems in this collection resonated with me--the bird poems in general left me cold. But others included language I admired or ideas that I wanted to consider. Overall, I recommend this collection.

Favorite passages:

From "Sometimes"
melancholy leaves me breathless.
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it. 

From "Percy and Books (Eight)"
. . .
But Percy, I say. Ideas! The elegance of language!
The elegance, the funniness, the beautiful stories
that rise and fall and turn into strength, or courage.

Books? says Percy. I ate one once, and it was enough.
Let's go.

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