Mary Oliver has done it again. She has assembled a collection of poems that is moving, intense and evocative in its engagement of the natural world. Yet this latest book by the Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winner is distinctive among her 17 volumes for the dark undercurrent that runs through the poems. The Red Bird of the title, who “comes all winter/ firing up the landscape/ as nothing else can do,” sounds the keynote of the book in the opening lyric, makes brief appearances throughout the volume and has the last word as well. Clearly, Red Bird is the poet herself, who comes to us during this particular winter of our discontent to sound a Cassandra-like warning, to teach us the hard lesson that this earth is fallen and fragile, now more than ever, and unless we learn to cherish the world, we will destroy it.
Oliver’s characteristic voice has long been one of hope. For the past 45 years, she has written poems that call attention to the minute and miraculous beauty evident in the ordinary. Readers familiar with her work will find this sacral vision in such poems as “Winter and the Nuthatch,” “Crow Says” and “Night Herons.” As these titles, along with the title of the book, suggest, the collection is dominated by images of birds. At least 22 varieties are specifically named, each creature cast in the role of teacher, whom the poet envies and admires for its ability to “declare so simply/ to the world/ everything I have tried but still/ haven’t been able/ to put into words” (“The Teachers”). In taking on the persona of the chief teacher, Red Bird, Oliver emulates her predecessors in the practice of American pastoral poetry, most notably Whitman and Frost. Those poets have famously interpreted the voices of the mockingbird, the thrush and the ovenbird, to name but a few, in poems that unfold in a distinctively American landscape and tell us the truths we need to know. These are Oliver’s avowed masters, whose lead she follows in tracing out the complex relationship between human beings and the magnificent world we inhabit. And though there is a darkness that lurks beneath the luminous surfaces of these poets’ best work, Oliver has in the past typically chosen to accentuate the light. Not so in this volume. Dead center in this book celebrating the lives of the birds we find this poem:
Look, children, here is the shy,
flightless dodo; the many-colored pigeon, named the passenger, the great auk, the Eskimo curlew, the woodpecker called the Lord God Bird,
Come, children, hurry—there are
more wonderful things to show
the museum’s dark drawers.
In its relentless naming of extinct species (and the ellipsis indicating the disturbing fact that the list is not yet complete), its insistent call to the children and its concluding line, which locates these once-living creatures in a repository reserved for the dead things of the past, “Showing the Birds” is chilling. There is an urgency in this and Oliver’s other poems about approaching environmental disaster that we do not find in Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us” or Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” poems written in the 19th century warning readers, even so long ago, of the insidious effects of progress. Oliver’s poems intimate that the losses we suffer are irretrievable, needless and entirely our fault, thus placing the responsibility for the torn fields, the dying river and the endangered polar bear upon us. Though there is little expectation that we can recover the world as it once was, Oliver insists that we pay attention to this grim reality.
This urgency is evident in Red Bird’s other lessons, as well, for all of these poems are saturated with the knowledge of mortality. Just as the earth and its splendid animals suffer death and loss, so, too, must human beings, the poet included. The speaker seems keenly aware of the fact that these may be her last days, her last poems and her last chance to communicate the truths she has discovered in her long apprenticeship to nature and to art. The collection serves as the poet’s apologia, within which each poem speaks, in some measure, of her life’s work: “I did not come into this world/ to be comforted./ I came, like red bird, to sing.”
This elegiac strain is particularly poignant in “Self-Portrait,” wherein the poet reveals her age (70), confesses her desire to be 20 again and expresses gratitude for the fact that despite the advance of years and the many losses she has suffered (including the unstated but understood loss of her long-time beloved partner, Molly Malone Cook), she is “still in love with life.” In counterbalance to the lurking presence of death, this fierce love informs the entire collection, beginning with the epigraph from Vincent van Gogh asserting that “the best way to know God is to love many things” and concluding with the final line of the final poem: “this is why I have been sent, to teach this to your heart.” The “this” she seeks to teach us encompasses all that has come before—the lessons of darkness as well as the lessons of light. The song Mary Oliver sings in Red Bird is the song she has always sung, but now more urgent, more needful, more true.