Owls and Other Fantasies, by Mary Oliver

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Four stars, read in September 2016.

As I often mention, I’m not a poetry person. The genre doesn’t do much for me as a whole, but there are certain poems and poets I really connect with, and Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” is one of them.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I need to read a collection of poetry for one of the reading challenges I’m doing this year, so I decided I wanted to read more of Mary Oliver’s work. I chose this book because I wanted one of the collections that included “Wild Geese;” it turns out that all the poems in it are about birds, which is lovely.

They are all beautiful poems, and although “Wild Geese” is still my favorite, there are a couple others that have stuck in my mind. “Bird,” a prose piece about rescuing an injured seagull, is both heartbreaking and beautiful. “The Kingfisher” has such striking imagery, but I was also intrigued by what it seems to say about imperfection as a cost of being human.

The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
like a blue flower, in his beak
he carries a silver leaf. I think this is
the prettiest world–so long as you don’t mind
a little dying, how could there be a day in your
whole life
that doesn’t have its splash of happiness?
There are more fish than there are leaves
on a thousand trees, and anyway the kingfisher
wasn’t born to think about it, or anything else.
When the wave snaps shut over his blue head, the
water
remains water–hunger is the only story
he has ever heard in his life that he could
believe.
I don’t say he’s right. Neither
do I say he’s wrong. Religiously he swallows the
silver leaf
with its broken red river, and with a rough and
easy cry
I couldn’t rouse out of my thoughtful body
if my life depended on it, he swings back
over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
(as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.

I’ve been reading about evolution lately, and I thought that idea was particularly interesting in this context. Look at bees and ants, the way they seem to operate almost like a machine. Look at the delicacy and intricacy of spiders’ webs and caterpillars’ cocoons. Look at birds, migrating to the same exact place every year. Doesn’t it make you feel clumsy in comparison, as though the fact of your humanness makes you unable to attain that precise perfection? It’s an unscientific thought, probably, but a kind of beautiful one, too.

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