(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Mary Oliver, winner of the 1992 National Book Award, the 1984 Pulitzer Prize, and the 1998 Lannon Literary Award for poetry, offers in her newest collection twenty-six poems and two essays. Owls and Other Fantasies is beautifully illustrated with line drawings of bird feathers. While the poems and essays take a variety of birds as their subjects, they are also about the great cycle of life. For Oliver, closer to the end of her life than its beginning, the contemplation of birds brings meaning, reconciliation, and redemption.

Fittingly, “Wild Geese,” Oliver’s much-loved poem, opens the volume. Perhaps more than any other poem in the book, “Wild Geese” signals Oliver’s purpose in this new collection: to welcome the reader home to the natural world. “You do not have to be good,” she tells the reader. “You do not have to walk on your knees/ for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.” Like the wild geese overhead, the reader, too, is “heading home again.” In lovely language and clear image, Oliver offers hope:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

While the sentiment is reminiscent of “Desiderata,” the invocation of the natural world removes the poem from sentimentality. Instead, Oliver leaves the reader with not only the sense of the passage of time but also the sense of timelessness. Human beings are not the only children of the universe; rather, they are a part of the great family that includes geese, and owls, and hummingbirds.

Many of the poems take on a Zen-like quality through the precise and razor-sharp use of image. This is nowhere clearer than in the poem “Some Herons.” One heron becomes “a blue preacher,” while another is “an old Chinese poet,/ hunched in the white gown of his wings.” The water is “dark silk/ that has silver lines/ shot through it/ when it is touched by the wind.” While there is movement in this poem created by the arrival of additional herons, this movement does nothing to alter the impression of a still life, of a moment captured in words as surely as by a photograph.

Other poems in Owls and Other Fantasies, however, circle like hawks around questions of life and death. In “The Dipper,” Oliver’s poem about a small bird she observed more than fifty years before, the poet signals her understanding that her life is nearing its inevitable close: She muses that her sighting of the dipper happened “more than half a century ago—/ more, certainly, than half my lifetime ago.” This thought leads her to the conclusion that the dipper must have died many years earlier, “his crumble of white bones, his curl of flesh/ comfortable even so.” For Oliver, the encounter with the dipper initiates her into the “ponderous book of riddles,” the tome of nature. Through the dipper, she learns that “the world is full of leaves and feathers,/ and comfort, and instruction.” In the book of nature, Oliver seems to assert, the reader can learn all that is worth learning.

Of all the birds observed in the book, Oliver seems to impart special significance to owls. Indeed, she devotes one full essay and two important poems to this bird. Spaced strategically across the collection, her references to owls serve to mark her growing understanding of and familiarity with death.

She begins this exploration in “Owls,” a five-page essay selected by editor Robert Atwan for inclusion in Best American Essays (1996). “Owls” is a remarkable essay in terms of its language, its structure, and its growth. The essay opens with Oliver’s narration of her hikes “upon the dunes and in the shaggy woodlands of the Provincelands” looking for the nest of the great horned owl. Her journey takes her past Pasture Pond, where more than a century earlier a Provincetown town crier reported his sighting of a six-headed sea serpent. Oliver does not ridicule this sighting; she merely reports it as she stares into the depths of the pond. This brief diversion signals the reader that this essay may be about far more than a hike in the woods looking for owls’ nests.

Oliver marks a clear distinction between the screech owl and the great horned owl. She imagines that Athena’s owl of wisdom, as well as Merlin’s owl, were...

(The entire section is 1818 words.)