The title poem "Red Bird" reminds us to appreciate what we are given. Here the poet is grateful for the colorful little bird who colors the landscape in winter. "Red bird came all winter/firing up the landscape/as nothing else could." Just this past week I took a walk on a very dry, dusty trail. The color palette was just versions of brown and green when all the sudden I was stopped cold by a profusion of yellow. It was a flower blooming despite the odds. What a gift.
As is often the case, Oliver urges us to stop and see what we may have overlooked before. In the poem "Invitation" to we are urged to "...linger/for just a little while/out of your busy/and very important day/for the goldfinches/that have gathered/in a field of thistles/for a musical battle." And if we do listen to her advice to "...not walk by/without pausing/to attend to this/rather ridiculous performance.//It could mean something./It could mean everything. It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:/You must change your life." Oliver's advice to change our life always means to slow down and appreciate what is right before us.
My favorite poem in the collection, "Percy and Books (Eight)" is a humorous conversation between the poet and her dog, starting with the line, "Percy does not like it when I read a book." He wants to be out in the sun and the wind, playing with other dogs. After she counters with the values associated with reading, he answers, "Books? says Percy, I ate one once, and it was enough. Let's go." Percy, apparently, provided the poet with lots of inspiration. In "Percy (Nine)" the poet tells her dog that a friend is coming to visit and he runs to the door with his mouth in a "laugh-shape." At this point Oliver stops to contemplate Emerson's advice to live an examined life, but throws it off by asking, "How would it be to be Percy...not/thinking, not weighing anything, just running forward?" Dogs and young children are good reminders to enjoy the special moments in each day.
The longest titled poem in the collection is the shortest poem. It is very pertinent for today:
Watching a Documentary about Polar Bears Trying to Survive on the Melting Ice Floes
That God had a plan, I do not doubt.
But what if His plan was, that we would do better?
"Of the Empire" is the most pointed poem in the collection. It talks about how history will remember us for our poor treatment of most people so that the rich can have everything they want. We will be remembered for the ways we used politics "to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days, was small, and hard, and full of meanness." Ouch. That was true in 2008 and even more so today in 2019, when our President is full of racial hatred and his policies put children in detentions worse than any prison.
But Oliver does not leave us in complete despair. In another short poem, "Where are you?" she reminds us there is a way out:
Where are you?
Do you know that the heart has a dungeon?
Bring light! Bring light!
And Percy offers one more piece of advice:
I Ask Percy How I Should Live My Life (Ten)
Love, love, love, says Percy.
And run as fast as you can
along the shining beach, or the rubble, or the dust
Then go to sleep.
Give up your body heat, your beating heart.
In conclusion, Oliver closes her collection with the poem "Red Bird Explains Himself." Red Bird tells us that he is sent to teach our hearts that "...the body needs a song, a spirit, a soul."
Thank you, Mary Oliver, for reminding me of these truths today.