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27 April 2007

Poems should always have birds in them

Mary_oliver_notesI went with my friend Donna to hear Mary Oliver read poetry a few weeks ago. It was the night Donna introduced me to a friend of hers who makes gorgeous felted textiles, the very friend who was wearing a felted scarf she had made, in just the right colors (teal, ochre) and with wild felted holes and spiky edges, a work of art that I literally bought off of her very neck that very night, it was so undeniably supposed to be mine. But I digress.

Mary_oliver_notes_singaporeAnd of all the poems Mary Oliver read that night, this was the one with the largest black circle beside it in my notes, and not only a circle, but one orbited by small dashes - stars? planets? an acknowledgment or constellation of recognition?


In Singapore in the airport,
A darkness was ripped from my eyes.
In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open.
A woman knelt there, washing something
in the white bowl.

Disgust argued in my stomach
and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.

A poem should always have birds in it.
Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings.
Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees.
A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain
rising and falling.
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.

When the woman turned I could not answer her face.
Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together, and
neither could win.
She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this?
Everybody needs a job.

Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
which is dull enough.
She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as
hubcaps, with a blue rag.
Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing.
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, like a river.
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
And I want to rise up from the crust and the slop
and fly down to the river.
This probably won’t happen.
But maybe it will.
If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?

Of course, it isn’t.
Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
the light that can shine out of a life
.  I mean
the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
The way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

 - Mary Oliver 


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My birding boss would argue that birds ARE poems...

Looking at the pictures of your notes reminds me of my favorite work of art in the new Daniel Libeskind-designed wing of the Denver Art Museum. I was privileged to wander through on the day it opened, along with one of the curators, and we stopped in front of a "painting" by Sean Landers called Pater Noster that, if I remember correctly, was created just for the museum. At the time of the making, his father was dying and Landers got married and he and his wife had a child, and the work is all random thoughts about all these processes and life in general, an ebb and flow of words over an enormous canvas. I wanted to sit and stare for hours and read it all. I took a few pictures. Here is one of his observations: "What would you do if the most famous art collector in the world owned scads of your art and did'nt like you." Another: "Every word I write on this painting has a dual purpose. The first is to mark my existance in history. The second is to sell it to you." I highly recommend a visit the next time you are in Denver.

I am a huge Mary Oliver fan, but not familiar with this poem which somehow manages to bring different parts of life together.

Like the wit and awareness in this poem.

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