Mary Oliver: Pay Attention, Be Astonished, Talk About It

Mary Oliver: Pay Attention, Be Astonished, Talk About It

September 01, 2008

A Review of Mary Oliver's Red Bird: Pay Attention, Be Astonished, Talk About It  By D.S. Martin

“Look at the birds of the air” Jesus said in Matthew 6, and Mary Oliver applies this teaching quite literally in her new poetry collection, Red Bird. These poems are  well-populated with birds: the meadowlark, the nuthatch, the crow, the hummingbird, the mockingbird, the owl, herons, ducks, plovers, goldfinches, sparrows and above all Red Bird, who is a character that makes appearances (sometimes when least expected) throughout the collection. 

Red bird came all winter
Firing up the landscape
as nothing else could...

Mary Oliver expresses her gratitude for such gifts in a long winter, but also a love for the “dun-colored” sparrows.

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

Her reflections on the natural world draw us in through their attention to specific detail, and simple, unforced interpretations.

She also considers the tiger lilies, “And the runaway honeysuckle that no one / will ever trim again.” The fox also shows up, so that we don’t merely reflect on beauty, but on appetite, stealth, and fear. As we think about creation, we also think of the creator — the one who gave the panther “a conscience that never blinks”, the one who determines what “must let be lost / and what will be saved.”

In one poem she speaks of her patience while waiting for a nuthatch: “It took hours of standing in the snow / before he would drop from the tree and trust my fingers.”  Her patience shouldn’t surprise us, since she demonstrates it through her well-crafted poetry. As readers of poetry we must also be patient, coaxing deeper meanings from a text, just as we need patience to listen for the voice of God.  It is such disciplined attentiveness that drew the poet to Christianity, and continues to inform her faith. In this same poem, she can also make us laugh, when she feels betrayed, seeing the nuthatch “flying into a stranger’s hand”.  Yet she is quick to corrects herself: “Nobody owns the sky or the trees, / Nobody owns the hearts of birds.”

Her previous collection, Thirst (2006), has much less to say about birds, mentioning them only occasionally. I would also say that Thirst is more blatantly a Christian book, in that she reflects on the Eucharist in a couple poems, reflects on Jesus in Gethsemane, and about the donkey that carried Christ into Jerusalem.  Red Bird is, even more than its predecessor, about observing nature — and so God is seen, and spoken of, as the creator and sustainer of this world.

Continuing from her earlier books is a series of poems that seem randomly spaced within Red Bird about her dog Percy. Thirst has poems four through seven from that series, and Red Bird numbers eight, nine, and ten. In “Percy (Nine)” she wonders what it would be like to be like her dog, “not / thinking, not weighing anything, just running forward.” But she does examine the world, and we are the richer for it.

Personal accomplishments are reflected on in “Winter and the Nuthatch”, and also in the beautiful poem “The Orchard”, which speaks of a bloom turning “to green fruit / which turns to sweet fruit.” She sees ambition as the leaves which vanish, and the irony of success: “the ripeness / of the apple / is its downfall.”

What she invites us to instead, is to “linger / for just a little while” to listen to the goldfinches in the field. This “Invitation” concludes with the conclusion to a Rilke poem — one about the still-obvious brilliance of a statue of Apollo, where only the torso remains, yet the observer seems to be the one who is seen. The reader is stretched to understand the connection, because she has just spoken about the birds’ “rather ridiculous performance”, when she says, “It could mean something. / It could mean everything. / It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote: / You must change your life.” And so she leaves us pondering.

We see that Oliver’s approach to poetry is seamless from her approach to life and to faith. One section within the poem “Sometimes” sums up all three.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it

Mary Oliver follows her own directive, and we can learn much from observing — and hopefully following — her example. 

Red Bird by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2008)

P.S. An issue dedicated to paying attention.  

D.S. Martin is a Canadian whose poetry has appeared in Anglican Theological Review, Canadian Literature, Christianity & Literature, and Ruminate's Issue 18: Sound & Silence. His poetry collections include: So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon) and Poiema (Wipf & Stock). View his blog about Christian poetry at:


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