Mary Oliver: A Modern Day Thoreau

We lost a great poet this year. The quill of Mary Oliver will ink no more, but the memory of her wonderful nature poems will resonate eternally. And when the natural heritage she captured so beautifully in her poetry has been annihilated by the wanton lust of man, we will remember, what once was, through reading and revisiting the natural heritage which was once available for all to enjoy first hand but which, unless ecological miracles take place, we will only be able to enjoy through the memories captured in photography and the written word by naturalists and poets such as she. Mary Oliver was the modern day Thoreau.

Let us consider her poem:


He picks his pond, and the soft thicket of his world.
He bids his lady come, and she does,
flirting with her tail.
He begins early, and makes up his song as he goes.
He does not enter a house at night, or when it rains.
He is not afraid of the wind, though he is cautious.
He watches the snake, that stripe of black fire,
until it flows away.
He watches the hawk with her sharpest shins, aloft
in the high tree.

In this snippet you can almost physically see and physically hear the catbird. Oliver teases us with the natural history of the catbird. We know it lives in thickets near water. Its enemies include the sharp-shinned hawk and the snake. The female attracts the male by pumping its tail up and down. His song meanders all over the music scale with no seeming rhyme or reason to it. Without even ever having seen a catbird, you have learned much of its nature from reading 10 lines of poetry. But the poem continues on:

He keeps his prayer under his tongue.
In his whole life he has never missed the rising of the sun.
He dislikes snow.
But a few raisins give him the greatest delight.
He sits in the forelock of the lilac, or he struts
in its shadow.
He is neither the rare plover or the brilliant bunting,
but as common as the grass.
His black cap gives him a jaunty look, for which
we humans have learned to tilt our caps, in envy.

Oliver describes the catbird. He is an early riser. He dislikes the snow, but for a treat he will venture into it. He sits and struts but not in the open…he is clandestine, yet common and not rare. He is rather plain looking but for his cap, of which she is envious. Oliver tries to communicate with him:

When he is not singing, he is listening.
Neither have I ever seen him with his eyes closed.
Though he may be looking at nothing more than a cloud
it brings to his mind several dozen new remarks.
From one branch to another, or across the path,
he dazzles with flight.
Since I see him every morning, I have rewarded myself
the pleasure of thinking that he knows me.
Yet never once has he answered my nod.
He seems, in fact, to find in me a kind of humor,

She watches him daily, hoping he will respond but he does not. To him Oliver is just an anomaly, something a bit out of the ordinary, but perfectly harmless and nothing to worry about, so he goes about his business as usual.

I am so vast, uncertain and strange.
I am the one who comes and goes,
and who knows why.
Will I ever understand him?
Certainly he will never understand me, or the world
I come from.
For he will never sing for the kingdom of dollars.
For he will never grow pockets in his gray wings.

And Oliver realizes that she is the odd one. She is the one who comes and goes with no real purpose. She still wonders if she will ever understand the catbird and acknowledges that he will never understand her or the world she hails from for he is not driven by greed and will always do what he knows to be right and never betray his nature.

Other nature poems to consider by Mary Oliver include: At Black River; Banyan; Black Oaks; Crow; The Loon on Oak-Head Pond; Mushrooms; White-Eyes and many other amazing poetic glimpses into the natural world.

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