Mary Oliver, Red Bird
Publisher: Beacon Press
2008, 78 pages, hardcover, $23

mary oliver’s poetry collections often explore nature’s elements using accessible language that may strike readers as too unadorned for poetry, but it will be difficult for these readers to ignore Oliver’s deliberate consideration of form and tension.

In Red Bird, Oliver continues her longstanding examination of the natural world. The red bird that makes an appearance in the title poem flies full circle and makes an appearance in the last poem, “Red Bird Explains Himself.” Oliver’s red bird, hummingbirds, sparrows, and crows have a transformative effect that leaves readers aware of and grateful for their ability to communicate with the human spirit. In “Red Bird,” Oliver begins to demonstrate this communication by connecting nature and humanity:

I am a God-fearing feeder of birds.
I know He has many children,
not all of them bold in spirit.

In “Summer Story,” Oliver’s narrator collapses natural boundaries by transcending species, stating “So that I feel I am myself / a small bird.” Throughout the poem, the narrator acquires the characteristics of the bird: its thin beak and fast heartbeat, even its hunger and nourishment.

In this collection, readers navigate into the familiar territory of nature with the assistance of Oliver’s keen observations. Though, in poems like “Invitation,” she asks readers to view nature with fresh eyes: “It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote / You must change your life.”

Throughout, Oliver comprehensively delves into the complex issues of politics, consumerism, love and aging. In “Self-Portrait,” Oliver addresses the frustration associated with aging: “I wish I was twenty and in love with life / and still full of beans.” Yet by the end of the poem Oliver has managed, like her red bird, to fly full circle:

though I’m not twenty
and won’t be again but ah! seventy. And still
in love with life. And still
full of beans.

Oliver’s “simple” language in Red Bird contradicts the complex content expressed in the collection, creating friction that belies an effortless read. Within Oliver’s Red Bird, readers will discover a new awareness of the interconnectedness between the natural world and their role as visitors in it.

-Heather K. Robinson