Apr 26, 2010

Red Bird by Mary Oliver

Red Bird by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver’s poems are often snapshots of very concrete moments: a morning walk, a bird hopping away, a very clear vision to which an emotion is attached. This is, of course, true of much poetry, but Oliver’s evocation of just the right detail to make the whole scene come to life makes this worthy of note.

To say that the poems in Red Bird evoke specific moments, however, is not saying much. And neither is saying that they’re often about nature, though it’s true that they are. What makes this collection stand out is the combination of all these things: the very vivid imagery, the nature scenes, the touches of darkness, the humour (see “Percy and Books”), and above all the sense of wonder and of love that permeates most of these poems.

I knew very little about Mary Oliver’s work before reading this collection — all I knew was that two very dear friends of mine loved her — and it surprised me to notice that much of Red Bird is about faith, directly or not. But as I’ve said before, I’m always interested in reading about what the experience of faith feels like for other people, and these poems gave me a glimpse of that. I found the intimacy, the vulnerability and the humanity of the speaker’s faith very moving. For example, in “Small Bodies” she addresses her God and says:
I know you know everything—
I rely on this.
Still, there are so many small bodies in the world,
for which I am afraid.
But for the most part, her faith manifests itself through a feeling that this non-believer can very easily relate to: a sense of Wordsworthian wonder, of gratefulness to be alive (as the birds tell her in “Invitation”, believe us, they say / it is a serious thing / just to be alive / on this fresh morning / in this broken world), of absolute love for the world. This is the same feeling I find in some of Gerald Manly Hopkins’ poetry, in Carl Sagan's science writing, in the brilliant final chapter of Terry Pratchett’s Nation – and it’s no cheap or easy thing, nor is it anywhere near as simple as it may seem. This feeling is all the more remarkable because it never slips into sugary territory; never denies or lessens the painfulness or messiness of life. It’s a love that is born out of acknowledging it, rather than out of sweeping it under the rug.

Some of the poems in Red Bird are actually quite dark: there’s some commentary on what humankind is doing to the planet (“Showing the Birds”, among others); there’s the strong anti-war sentiment of “Of the Empire”; there’s the grief and the bittersweet awareness of the transience of life of “There you were, and it was like spring”. All this to say that the prevalence of wonder and love do not at all make this an emotionally uniform collection.

A note on Oliver’s language: I won’t call it “deceptively simply” because it isn’t: it is, in fact, as simply as it can be. To make excuses for that would be to imply that complex language is a necessary requirement of poetry, or that simple language automatically means simplicity of content or lack of depth, which is absolutely not something I believe. I find that I read poetry much like I listen to music: it’s through repetition that I make it mine. So I’ll read a favourite poem and listen to a favourite song again and again, until I know their every detail and can call them my own. Mary Oliver’s simple language and her vivid, immediate evocation of a particular scene mean that you don’t need to read her poems repeatedly to make sense of them, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be gained by doing so.

I thought it was interesting that she comments on the simplicity of her language herself on a poem from a different collection, “Everything”. I leave you with a favourite from Red Bird, “I Ask Percy How I Should Live My Life”:
Love, love, love, says Percy.
And hurry as fast as you can
along the shining beach, or the rubble, or the dust.
Then, go to sleep.
Give up your body heat, your beating heart.
Then, trust.
Other Opinions:
Eleventh Stack
Just a (Reading) Fool

(Let me know if I missed yours.)

I wrote this post for the National Poetry Month Blog Tour – make sure you also visit Dar at Peeking Between the Pages and Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts today for more poetry posts.


  1. I don't have this collection of Oliver's, but I have read other books of hers and have enjoyed them all for their depth, looks at nature, and moments of protest.

    Thanks for participating in NPM. Please remember to email your full link to Susan at Winabook.com and put your link in the Mr. Linky on the welcome post.

  2. I don't read much poetry, but this looks like a wonderful collection. The poem you feutured here & "of love" which you posted earlier this week are both lovely. Of course it has been added to my wishlist, like nearly any book you review.

  3. I love “I Ask Percy How I Should Live My Life” - I love that she can say so much with such economy. And wish I could share Percy's faith.

  4. I like the way you say that it isn't necessary to reread Oliver's poems to understand them, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't. I think most people need to reread to understand any poetry. I do the same thing you do; read it over and over if I want to "make it mine." (Good phrase.)

  5. Another great review. Thank you for the introduction to a new (to me) poet.

  6. You do such a good job of discussing Mary Oliver here. I only have one volume of hers and it's "New and Selected Poems" (1992); I wonder if any of the poems in your book are in there....probably not, since your volume seems to be a recent publication.

  7. I haven't read much poetry these past few years, but I do love the sound of this book. The excerpts that you printed in this post touched me really deeply, in a way that I haven't experienced in quite awhile. Thanks for this beautiful review. I will be grabbing a copy of this collection!

  8. Lovely, must get hold of the book. Thanks!

  9. Sounds like a great collection. I love the excerpts that you quoted.

  10. Love, love, love Mary Oliver. One of my absolute favorites! So glad you are enjoying her!

  11. I found this to be a fascinating post. I find it very hard to connect with poetry, yet I feel that I could read and understand most of what the author wants to convey with this collection.

  12. Serena, thank you for the reminder!

    Iris: Sorry! :P I have a couple of meh reviews coming up ;)

    Jill: So do I.

    Jeanne: As much as I sometimes love a poem right away, I find that they always grow on me with repeated reads.

    Elisabeth: You're most welcome!

    Valerie: Yeah, this is a more recent collection. But I'm actually reading New and selected Poems Vol 2 right now, and there's just so much to love.

    Zibilee and Katherine: I hope you love it as much as I did :)

    Amy: I'm glad you like them!

    Daphne: I keep reading her and wondering where she's been all my life!

    Staci: I'm absolutely sure you could!

  13. I really must read some more poetry. I love the way Oliver writes - so simple and honest!

  14. I relate poetry to music too. I've often looked at music as poetry, actually...I shouldn't say I relate poetry to music, but I understand it in the same way...it's the repetition of it that allows me to understand it finally. Sometimes I'll connect with a poem the first time I read it, just like with certain songs and sometimes it takes a few goes...and sometimes it just doesn't happen :p

  15. I love the term "wordsworthian wonder" and I love your praise of this. Every time I read poetry, I want to read more, and this sounds so satisfying!

  16. I haven't actually heard of Oliver, but I am now very interested in her! Thanks for the review Nymeth.

  17. Excellent review (but I am biased; I'm a fan of both Oliver and you). I think you have caught the essence of her: the simplicity of her language. Oliver is not a trickster poet (like Billy Collins, e.g.); she goes straight for the heart. Which is not to say that she cannot be sly. I'd been thinking that she had become too prolific to keep her wonder, but I believe I shall have to reassess that. Red Bird may have to come settle on my bookshelf!

  18. Seems great, thank you for sharing this, haven't heard of Oliver before, but now I'm adding her to the reading list :)

  19. Poems about nature and specific moments- it sounds delicious Nymeth !
    “Small Bodies” sounds really good- it feels like it’s a poem I can truly relate so I think I’m going to add this to my poetry book list (which is mostly shaped by your reviews I have to add :) )

  20. I've been so remiss about reading poetry. I've read little since I left college outside of Billy Collins who a work colleague turned me onto a few years ago. This collection sounds lovely. I could read one poem a day of this and have much to ponder.

  21. Emidy: I love it too, for the same reasons :)

    Chris: lol, yeah, sometimes they just don't click :P But it's so wonderful when it does happen.

    Rebecca: It was! But it left me wanting more too - I'm currently devouring another Mary Oliver collection that I had on my tbr pile :)

    Elise: I only discovered her through blogging too. This is why I love book bloggers!

    ds, you are too kind! This was the first books of hers that I read, so I can't compare it to her earlier ones. If they're even better, though, I'm in for a treat!

    estrella05azul: I hope you like her poems as much as I do :)

    Lua: It made me smile that you're getting poetry recommendations from me, because I feel that I read so little of it! But what I've been reading recently definitely makes me want to change that.

    Kathleen: I think this is the perfect book to lure you back to poetry!

  22. I surely want to read this collection. I've read AMerican Primitive and was SO impressed. Reading poetry is very tricky. You have to read the ones that fit you. And Oliver seems to be perfect fit for so many of us.


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