Mary Oliver, Red Bird (2008) #20BooksofSummer

Red bird came all winter …

I read Mary Oliver’s collection, Red Bird, in one evening. Then I got up the next day and read it again on my commute to work. This is not her greatest work, but something about the poems really resonated with me. I rarely read a book twice in forty eight hours.

The poems in Red Bird are set in winter, which it soon becomes apparent is a metaphor for living through a time of grief and loss. The many birds, and other animals, that appear are metaphors for psychological and emotional states. The ‘big’ connecting theme in this collection is the inevitability and relentlessness of death: ‘Death waits for me, I know it, around one corner or another’ (p.38). The speaker is an older person, confronting loss and their own mortality, reflecting on the past, and fearful for the future. But, as ever in Oliver’s poetry, the poems convey a luminous quality of hope and resilience in the face of suffering, that has made her poetry so beloved. Oliver’s dog Percy makes a few appearances too.

I love bird poems and there are so many here. Goldfinches, night herons, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, crows, nuthatches, meadowlarks, teals and the ‘Red Bird’ of the title, who reappears in various guises, firing up the winter landscape with ‘the music of your heart that you wanted and needed’ (‘Red Bird Explains Himself’ p. 78).

There are some overtly political poems that address the destruction of the natural world by human civilization and the horrors of war (‘the terrible debris of progress’) in poems like’Red’, ‘Showing the Birds’, ‘From the River’, and ‘We Should be well Prepared’.

The collection includes Oliver’s famous ‘Instructions for living a life’:

Pay attention

Be astonished

Tell about it

‘Sometimes’, (4.) p. 37

Taken out of context (the poem is about death), it’s the kind of thing that gets her accused of being a bit ‘live, love, laugh’, but I don’t think there’s anything ‘live, love, laugh’, about Oliver’s poetry. She understands and fully acknowledges the pain and suffering of life, and wrote to try and help us deal with it.

As someone who has been living through their own ‘winter’ for the last two years, the collection had a special resonance for me at this time in my life. A reminder that the red bird is out there.

Lesbian/Queer Women link love #7

The Guardian, Pioneering Bollywood lesbian romance opens in India 

Duke University Press, Esther Newton, My Butch Career, A Memoir 

The Guardian, ‘It has made me want to live’: Public support for lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall over banned book revealed 

The Paris Review, Hunting for a lesbian canon 

Catapult Magazine, ‘I should hate forever to be a burden to you’: Lessons in love from Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West 

Lit Hub, The overlooked eroticism of Mary Oliver 

Mary Oliver, ‘Dogfish’

Some kind of relaxed and beautiful thing

kept flickering in with the tide
and looking around.
Black as a fisherman’s boot,
with a white belly.

If you asked for a picture I would have to draw a smile
under the perfectly round eyes and above the chin,
which was rough
as a thousand sharpened nails.

And you know
what a smile means,
don’t you?

I wanted the past to go away, I wanted
to leave it, like another country; I wanted
my life to close, and open
like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song
where it falls
down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery;
I wanted
to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,

whoever I was, I was

alive
for a little while.

*

It was evening, and no longer summer.
Three small fish, I don’t know what they were,
huddled in the highest ripples
as it came swimming in again, effortless, the whole body
one gesture, one black sleeve
that could fit easily around
the bodies of three small fish.

*

Also I wanted
to be able to love. And we all know
how that one goes,
don’t we?

Slowly

*

the dogfish tore open the soft basins of water.

*

You don’t want to hear the story
of my life, and anyway
I don’t want to tell it, I want to listen

to the enormous waterfalls of the sun.

And anyway it’s the same old story – – –
a few people just trying,
one way or another,
to survive.

Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
or mean,
for a simple reason.

And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
this world.

*

And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is
bulging toward them.

*

And probably,
if they don’t waste time
looking for an easier world,

they can do it.

Poem: Mary Oliver, ‘The Sun’

Have you ever seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed–
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

Mary Oliver

We’ve been seeing a lot more of the Sun than is usual for this time in the UK. Every time I watch it slowly descending towards the horizon the evening, I think to myself “That’s our very own STAR!” and am amazed again.

Mary Oliver, ‘Starlings in Winter’

‘Starlings in Winter’

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard.  I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

~ Mary Oliver ~