What we learn from love: It may be the strongest of the posts and beams that become our frames, the most potent of the routes on our personal maps. Surely it is how we cross the chasm from one person to another -- guessing at and identifying with the passions and loyalties that present within the life we gently explore.
Poet Donald Hall moved most powerfully as he confronted the illness and then death of his beloved, the amazing poet Jane Kenyon. Mark Doty drew us into the fierce parting from his beloved within a close network of friends on Cape Cod. And in the hands of Mary Oliver, poet of the garden, the woodland, the ocean and its rose-strewn surroundings, we have also felt the pulse of Molly Malone Cook, Oliver's partner and agent. RED BIRD, Oliver's 2008 collection, emerges from loss, following Cook's death in 2005.
Yet this is not a book of elegy, nor even one of missing the absent beloved. Rather, poem after poem entwine the observer and the natural world, alternating the eye of the beholder and the voice of the singer. The red bird "firing up the landscape / as nothing else can do" opens the collection, a warm heart aflame; it closes the book also, speaking to the poet as muse:
And this was my true task, to be the
music of the body. Do you understand? for truly the body needs
a song, a spirit, a soul.
Muse and liturgist, the bird draws the beholder into relationship with its surrounding flowers and trees, "bringing sticks to the nest."
Beyond this characteristic braid of bird, heart, and home, Oliver asserts a self able to walk as one whole, one healed, on Cape Cod. Many of the poems begin with the walking, literally -- then pick up the self again, like a yarn carried behind the knitted stitches, emerging as pattern when the needles flash back again. The enchanting poem "Luke" follows the tenderness of a dog among flowers and then dips in this pattern back to the human heart: "but the way // we long to be-- / that happy / in the heven of earth-- / that wild, that loving."
New England humor pushes forth like mushrooms from damp ground in some of the poems, as in "Self-Portrait" where Oliver declares herself "still / full of beans." It's a brave bright counterpoint to the mystic along the river or oceanfront. And if the mystic's voice is sometimes wrapped in thick layers of Christian liturgy and scripture ("Every day / I consider / the lilies-- / how they are dressed--"), this blunt humor pulls it back out of the church and into the merry heart that sees even death as part of the sweet cycle:
and the ripeness
of the apple
is its downfall.
Well represented among the poems is Oliver's most classic form, the short-lined four-part stanzas with their sequential indents and sharp interruptions of dashes and breaks. Among these is the poem "The Teachers," which places the stair-steps of the lines around the notion of one who labors "with the mind-steps of language." Poised against their orderly presentations are the quick chuckles shared as poems to Percy, Oliver's grinning and bouncing dog. In the eighth poem to Percy (some have been in earlier collections), Oliver offers: "Books? says Percy. I ate one once, and it was enough. / Let's go."
But this is also a collection that moves from the personal to the political, challenging the American empire and its "President who loves blood." And so it happens that the most poignant piece here is not one of missing Molly Malone Cook (ah, New England restraint!), but rather one titled "Iraq":
I think, whoever he was,
of whatever country,
he might have been my brother,
were the world different.
In this, Oliver seizes the opportunity, like Maxine Kumin, to be an outspoken and wise woman who calls out like a prophet, or even, in "We Should Be Well Prepared," like one ready to pronounce upon the persistent shadow of death and loss even in the garden of Eden.
Arthur Sze has commented that the poetic sequence is the potent discovery of our time, and Oliver gives good evidence for the notion as she adds to this collection the sequence "Sometimes" and the longer "Eleven Versions of the Same Poem": sequences that take advantage of rougher, less hemmed in language to wrestle with God like Jacob with the angel. She gives us a glimpse of what it is to be "a woman whose love has vanished," thinking not just of sun on the leaves but of darkness and roots.
"I came, like red bird, to sing. / But I'm not red bird," she admits. For a moment, disaster hesitates at the open doorway. Then Oliver cocks her head to listen again, and finds her own inner singing, after all.