In her twelfth book of poetry, Red Bird, Oliver breaks new ground while still offering readers what they love best: the sharp image, the keen observation, and the near-mystical identification with the natural world. From the opening poem, “Red Bird,” to the closing poem, “Red Bird Explains Himself,” Oliver weaves together the journey of her life, through love, through sorrow, and back again to an embrace of the world.
In 2005 Oliver’s beloved companion, Molly Malone Cook, died at the age of eighty. The two had shared an oceanside home on Cape Cod for more than forty years. Oliver’s 2006 collection, Thirst, was heavy with the grief of that loss. In 2006, as a tribute to Cook, Oliver selected a representative sampling of Cook’s photographs and published them along with her own prose in a book titled Our World. Now, through the words of Red Bird, Oliver emerges from her grief to once again open her arms, her vision, and her heart to all of the creatures of the natural world. Nonetheless, her vision is slightly shifted from her earlier work; the poems of Red Bird carry with them a subtle, dark undercurrent. It is as if her understanding of the world is being severely tested. While her earlier work demonstrates her connectedness to all living things, Red Bird lays bare a grief over the death of one particular person. Further, whereas in earlier work, Oliver has many times portrayed the deaths of creatures large and small, it is in this book that she integrates into her worldview the necessity of death. To do so, she must enlarge her scope, finding sympathy for the fox and the mouse, the bear and fish, paradoxically and equally. She must confront herself squarely as an aging woman who will surely experience her own death, more likely sooner than later. Despite these thematic concerns, it would be wrong, however, to depict Red Bird as a sad or sorrowful book, although there is surely both sorrow and sadness within the pages. The book is filled with wonder, some laughter, many sharp images, and evidence of the redemptive power of nature.
The red bird of the title signals Oliver’s return to the land of the living, “firing up the landscape/ as nothing else could do.” In the winter of the spirit and the heart, the passion that the red bird represents continues to call all creatures to life, even the poet herself. In “Self-Portrait,” Oliver claims that she is “still/ in love with life. And still/ full of beans.” Even at seventy, she finds the strength and the purpose to tramp the woods and hills. Her characteristic joy in life in all its varieties, including her own, is evident here and throughout the book.
Early in the collection, however, Oliver strikes another, more somber note. In “Night and the River,” Oliver describes the scene of a bear fishing along a river. Without first naming the bear, she creates his power: The bear has “great feet leaping in the river,” and she sees “the sudden fire of his mouth” as he eats a fish. It is as if the power of the bear exists separately from his physical body. For Oliver, this is a beautiful, yet terrifying, experience, one that she is not sure how to explain or understand. “I could not tell/ which fit me/ more comfortably, the power,/ or the powerlessness.” Once the fish has been consumed and the bear leaves, Oliver is left only with the story of the event, one that is “a difficult guest” in her home. The story is like the river, never stopping, but continuing to sing the same song, over and over and over. At the same time, however, the story “sounds like a body falling apart.” In this poem, Oliver addresses head on the theme she has hinted at in previous volumes, such as Owls and Other Fantasies (2003): Death is a gory but necessary business. It is as if Oliver has butted up against the hard truth that no matter how much one revels in the natural world and in the abundance of life, all life ends in death, and often the weak lose their lives to the strong. Even more unsettling, life requires death. Thus the difficulty of the story she brings home from the river: The bear’s life depends on the fish’s death. The fish was a beautiful creature, and the bear, too, will someday face death.
Oliver again returns to this theme in the poem “Another Everyday Poem.” Oliver’s first stanza reads, “Every day/ I consider/ the lilies/...
(The entire section is 1810 words.)