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Review: Red Bird

I’ve been taking a break from writing to enjoy the holidays and decide whether or not I want to continue this blog now that its raison d’etre has expired. After careful consideration of historical precedents, I’m taking a note from NATO and keeping it up anyhow. It’s always good to practice writing, so whether or not anyone keeps on reading it, I’ll keep on writing it.

One of my new year’s resolutions is to read one novel or collection of short stories a month because I hardly read fiction anymore, and I think I’ll end up reviewing most of the books here. I haven’t done much reviewing in the past, but I always find reviews helpful—both when I read others’ and, to help me process the piece, when I write them myself. Below is a review I wrote of Mary Oliver’s 2008 collection of poems Red Bird (Boston: Beacon Press). It should also appear in the January 15 edition of the Calvin College Chimes.

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Unlike her 2006 book Thirst, Mary Oliver’s 2008 collection of poems, Red Bird, is running with water. “So come to the pond / or the river of your imagination, / or the harbor of your longing, / and put your lips to the world,” she instructs in “Mornings at Blackwater.” It is hopeful and confident, concluding, “And live / your life.”

Watery images appear throughout the collection and generally mark a departure from the sorrow and searching of Thirst, which was written after the death of Oliver’s long-time partner. Yet in another poem, “From this River, When I Was a Child, I Used to Drink,” the narrator engages in a sorrowful dialogue about a river that is dying, and it is clear that Thirst is not entirely quenched.

The book’s title poem puts it this way: “the heart narrows / as often as it opens,” suggesting Oliver’s oscillation between the attitudes of “From this River” and “Mornings at Blackwater.” Like tides coming and going, the poems of Red Bird move back and forth between gratitude and grief as Oliver, now 74 years old, reflects on her life and still asks how the rest should be lived.

“Self Portrait” is one poem in which the narrator reflects gratefully on a long life: “I’m not twenty / and won’t be again but ah! Seventy. And still / in love with life. And still / full of beans.” The enjambment after “And still” repeated in the last stanza makes the narrator’s age a celebration, something to notice and give thanks for.

On the other hand, the collection includes lines such as “Sometimes / melancholy leaves me breathless.” The negative images scattered throughout the book include two gray foxes, killed and turned red on the roadside; a crumpled body in Iraq; an American empire that is empty, mean and power-hungry. In a different sort of life reflection, the poet exclaims about writing, “What an elite life! / While somewhere someone is kissing a face that is crying. / While somewhere women are walking out at two in the morning — many miles to find water. / While somewhere a bomb is getting ready to explode.” In between the narrator’s moments of gratitude, there is the shadow of unease and a doubt that her happiness is warranted.

The passage between grief and gratitude in the collection is not a clear progression from one to the other. Rather, Oliver changes seasons rapidly. Here it is summer, two pages further, winter. In all seasons, Oliver finds her way with the instruction of nature, as she has in her previous works. In “The Teachers” she attends the school of the wild and listens to the lectures of the birds’ songs, the wind in the trees, and the waves on the water. She asks her dog Percy for advice and he gives it, while the fox, more presuming than Percy, volunteers himself as an instructional example: “What I am, and I know it, is / responsible, joyful, thankful.” What all these teachers of the wild share is personality; it is not a fox who offers his straight talk, but Fox, anthropomorphized and relational.

There is no better teacher than red bird, the title character. He makes his appearance in the first poem — “Red bird came all winter / firing up the landscape / as nothing else could do” — but he doesn’t return until page 75, at the end of a series of poems about Oliver’s lost love. However, the last poem, “Red Bird Explains Himself,” suggests he’s been there all along, not only in winter, but in summer too: “If I was the song that entered your heart / then I was the music of your heart, that you wanted and needed.” Red bird has been sent to set to singing the heart that both narrows and opens and always keeps on beating. He is a product of Thirst’s found faith and a symbol of Oliver’s rediscovered hope and purpose.

Red Bird was released in April, but winter, it seems, is the perfect time to read these poems. As Oliver lives on with grief, she finds ways to look around and look forward with gratitude. That model, so beautifully expressed and “graced as it is / with the ordinary,” will fire up the landscape, as nothing else could do in these cold, icy months.

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