In "The Kingfishers," Charles Olson reflects on the constant change in the world with a special focus on the negative changes brought by Western imperialism.
Olson begins with the idea of change. "What does not change," he remarks, "is the will to change." Everything changes, and many people want to bring on change to promote their own agendas. Herein lie the ideas of imperialism. Olson focuses especially on the exploitation of Mexico, where ancient cultures have been wiped out by Spanish colonialism, which has led to conflicts all the way up to modern times. The victims of this imperialism were crushed by violence and oppression, yet they left some lasting evidence of their cultures, including the e cut into stone that Olson mentions more than once. This e becomes a symbol for what has been lost and is now shrouded in mystery to modern people.
Indeed, Olson incorporates other symbols to help him explore his themes. The kingfisher is the primary symbol, for it is a vigorous bird that endures and continues to reproduce and thrive even in the midst of exploitation. The birds' young grow and are nourished even in the most fetid of nests, and the birds fly in the sunlight and are warmed by it, reenergizing life. The kingfisher actually stands, in a way, as an anti-symbol for the cultures crushed by imperialism. It serves as a contrast to both those cultures and to the idea of continual change, for the bird endures.
Olson also sees the pattern of imperialism continuing in his time in the Korean conflict. The West continues to perpetuate violence against others, he implies, once again seeming to contradict his idea of continual change. Overall, the poem is primarily anti-imperialist, but its postmodern perspective explores ideas from multiple, often contradictory, perspectives.