Even at her most agnostic, her most atheistic, Mary Oliver was always a spiritual, even a religious, writer. Her embracing of nature is all-encompassing, recalling the preoccupation of no less a poetic figure than William Wordsworth. In recent years, as seen in her last few books, she has evinced a new-found faith beyond the more general pantheism that always seemed to be just below the surface of many of her finest poems.
I have to admit, I approached this newer work with the kind of trepidation one has when hearing of a life-altering event involving a close friend; confronting a new-found faith in others that one does not necessarily share can be a daunting thing, most especially when it concerns an old friend. I’m happy to report that, as may be seen in her new collection of poems, Red Bird, this faith is not only a logical extension of her previous beliefs, it in fact firmly accentuates what has come before.
Mary Oliver’s wide appeal beyond the usual poetry reading community is easy to understand; her poems are rendered in simple basic vocabulary, are no less beautiful for that simplicity, and concern the everyday world around us. Her perception of things is acute; she points out in nature what we all might see if we took the time and had the patience to truly look. Beyond capturing the moment, she also supplies the resonance from which meaning may flow. When she is good, she is transcendent. When she is average, she is at least always interesting. Red Bird is a volume that may be read straight through and then bears, in fact induces, repeated readings. It is cohesive in that its overarching theme is present throughout. There are more than a handful of excellent poems here. Listen to this excerpt from Straight Talk from Fox:
Don’t think I haven’t
peeked into windows. I see you in all your seasons
making love, arguing, talking about God
as if he were an idea instead of grass,
instead of stars, the rabbit caught
in one good teeth-whacking hit and brought
home to the den.
Highlights include this poem, along with Invitation, Night and the River, There is a Place Beyond Ambition, We Should Be Prepared, This Day and Probably Tomorrow Also, the fabulous Of Love, I am the one; well, I could go on. There is even a powerful political poem, Of the Empire, that telescopes the general to the particular in a most damning fashion. If you listen closely, you may find there is a message just for you, as in the beginning of Invitation:
Oh do you have time
for just a little while
out of your busy
and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles…