Mary Oliver’s gift of making you look anew at nature is well documented. Still, I approached Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays, with some trepidation. Was this compilation of poems about birds just a slick packaging/re-marketing of her previous work? It could be, but of the 26 poems appearing here, 10 have never been collected. In addition to the poems are two outstanding essays, including one written for this collection.
I’m not a birder — I can pick out the main ones, but my wife and teenage son know far more that I ever will. But no knowledge is needed. Instead, Oliver’s poems show you birds through the unflinching eye of a nature observer. This is not a collection of cute bird poems — it is a celebration of these creatures in their beauty and frightening power.
White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field
out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel,
or a buddah with wings,
it was beautiful
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings–
five feet apart–and the grabbing
thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys
of the snow–
Owls are portrayed as highly efficient killing machines. In her essay on owls she says “In the night, when the owl is less than exquisitely swift and perfect, the scream of the rabbit is terrible. But the scream of the owl, which is not of pain and hopelessness and the fear of being plucked out of the world, but the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer, is more terrible still.” Both of her essays in this collection are a natural fit within her poetry. Her prose writing is also poetic, even when describing a small bird her and her partner raise after it is injured.
Reading all the poems together show Oliver’s life-long love of nature and birds, culminating in this thematic collection. She has followed this model in a book of dog poems, which I have yet to read (but expect a similar style). The range of birds (swans, owls, hummingbirds, wrens, hawks, herons, and many more) show an appreciation for a species more than a particular bird. Oliver envies them for their flight, beauty, power, and song. In a poem about a thrush singing, “Such Singing in the Wild Branches” she writes of feeling like she is singing with the thrush in a fleeting, magical moment. She then offers this advice:
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your soul need comforting?
Quick, then–open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.
Even those not of the birding persuasion will find this to be a volume worth spending a couple of hours with — I recommend on the front porch. For those with birding friends, this will serve as an accessible entry into the world of poetry.