Review: Mary Oliver’s “Red Bird”

Mary Oliver and her dog Percy

Mary Oliver and her dog Percy

By Robert Israel

Mary Oliver’s previous book, Thirst, was dedicated to the memory of her lifelong partner, Molly Malone Cook, who died in 2005. She and Malone had been together in Provincetown for over 40 years, and the poems in that collection were heart-wrenching and elegiac. A companion book – Our World — which features the late Cook’s photos, explains why: Oliver and Malone truly had a unique and loving relationship. Their days were filled with light as they walked together along the seashores of their beloved Outer Cape and enjoyed the vibrant artistic community that thrives there.

With the publication of Red Bird (Beacon Press, Boston), Oliver returns to familiar subjects, the seaside, the ponds, the wildlife, and what each teaches her about coping, changing and staying spirited in the face of despair. In poem after poem she celebrates life, nature and memory. Her profound sense of loss seems to be lifting. The clue to this can be found in a marvelous poem “Summer Morning”, when she writes that “it’s time to come back/from the dark.”

There are many poems about love, the loss of her beloved Malone the subtext of these poems, and her passionate love of God. Whether she refers to the Deity as “Lord” or “God,” it is always in the masculine and always reverential. If these poems haven’t found their way into the Church’s liturgy, they need to. They are hymns to a divine spirit that unites all things and all people, as in the poem, “So every day.” It is so brief it comes to one’s mind like a prayer, and it reads as naturally as taking a breath: “So every day/I was surrounded by the beautiful crying forth/of the ideas of God,/one of which was you.”

Oliver has written extensively about nature, and in so doing she is connected to the American poets of yesteryear who drew from nature a sense of spiritual transcendence. Poems in this collection celebrate the ponds that she has visited and described in other collections that are near her home on the Outer Cape. She writes about the ocean with its mysteries and majesties. She describes even an ant as part of the life cycle, as well as the abundant flora and fauna, and the wild creatures that continually astonish her and awaken her to color, loss of color, the rhythms of life.

These are poems to read in the quiet of the day, and to enjoy many times afterward, to remind oneself of the fragility of life and the necessity to capture its fleeting rhapsodies.

Robert Israel can be reached at A previous version of this review appeared in Edge Magazine (Boston).


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