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Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver’s Owl and Other Fantasies

While browsing the poetry section at my local bookstore recently I found Mary Oliver’s Owl and Other Fantasies. Not surprisingly, considering my recent obsession with birds, I bought it. After all, I doubt it would suddenly appear at the appropriate moment like that if I wasn’t intended to have it, now would it?

Although I wasn’t particularly fond of a few of the early poems, ones that seemed a little too sentimental to suit my own view of nature, I was, perhaps ironically, attracted to:

SUCH SINGING IN THE WILD BRANCHES

It was spring
and finally I heard him
among the first leaves –
then I saw him clutching the limb
in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness –
and that’s when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree –
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass
stopped
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward
like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing –
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed
not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky – all, all of them
were singing.
And, of course, yes, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last
for more than a few moments.
It’s one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,
is that, once you’ve been there,
you’re there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then – open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.

At first, I was a little put off by the anthropomorphic “all trim and neat for the new year, ” and I’m sure most people would see this as a “very sentimental” view of nature, but the poem celebrates precisely the kind of moment I’ve felt once or twice in the last year. My first such experience followed a Buddhist meditation on listening. The next morning I took that focus with me on my daily hike through Pt. Defiance Park and was amazed at all the sounds I could not remember ever hearing before. For a few moments, I felt like I had been transported to an entirely new place, a more beautiful place than I had been before, and there are few places in the world more beautiful than an old-growth forest.

This walk actually inspired my current interest in birding because I wanted to know where those magical sounds were coming from. Strangely enough, the more I found out about where they were coming from, the more I enjoyed them. Although I seldom experience the kind of joy I felt that first day, I’ve never entered the woods again without being aware of the sounds of birds, birds so small that they are seldom seen.

Owl and Other Fantasies is a short book, only 65 pages and some of those pages are blank, so I won’t quote another poem, but if I were going to do so it would a be a very different kind of poem, possibly one called “Hawk” that focuses on the swiftness of death and ends in the powerful lines “and then it/ turned into a white blade, which fell.” The title poems on owls focus on this theme, and the book is infinitely richer because of that dual focus. Oliver doesn’t reduce nature to some Walt Disney version of reality. If she had done so, I would have found it much harder to accept the optimism found in this poem.