Flights of Imagination

Article excerpt

Flights of Imagination

THE TASK OF EVALUATING POETRY has never been easy, but it is especially daunting at this point in our cultural history when so many books of poetry are being published, books that answer to a great variety of conceptions of the craft. One strategy of evaluation is to choose a fairly determinate poetic problem with a set of standard solutions, and then compare the ways that different poets handle that problem. At the turn of the twenty-first century in the Anglophone world, where the dialectical interplay of religion and atheism is so fierce, poets have a difficult time talking about the soul, which I might define simply as the difference between a living person and a corpse. Whatever it is, that beloved subtrahend, our recognition of it is as ancient as the cave-fires of the Paleolithic. Equally intellectual and passionate, the soul is a human reality that poets must address: but in what terms, with what words and figures, what echoes of earlier texts?

Grieving for a departed friend, we often say of the soul that it has flown away. Birds and bats, fellow creatures that fly, have long been figures for the fugitive or pilgrim soul and are especially apt for poets who abjure organized religions and even the social rituals that stand in for religion. Favorite examples of mine are Maxine Kumin's "Reviewing the Summer and Winter Calendar of the Next Life," Richard Wilbur's "Mind," and Anne Stevenson's "Swifts," poems written by the poets when they had purposefully removed themselves to the country for distinct but analogous reasons.

Mary Oliver and Brendan Galvin, two of our best and most durable American poets, live at the tip of Cape Cod, in villages (Provincetown and Truro, respectively) protected by national parks and the comparative isolation and bleakness of that seagirt almost-island in the off-season. For eight months out of the year, I imagine that they live in rather Thoreauvian circumstances, though neither seems particularly Transcendental in outlook, and I suppose they too had their reasons for moving to the country.

The poems in Mary Oliver's Owls and Other Fantasies' are mostly about birds. As the title suggests, she is not treating them like Roger Tory Peterson (though I bet $5 that both Oliver and Galvin have his bird guides around the house) but using them otherwise to understand things, including the soul. "The Dipper" begins with a memory: "This happened / in Colorado / more than half a century ago," when the poet identified a small bird among the rocks of a mountain stream, inferring his name from his activity arid from "the tone, // cadence, sweetness, and briskness / of his affirmative report." It was one of the great, common triumphs of human language (correct classification) and also a bridge from one species to another by means of expression.

The conundrum of the poem is how the bird (and so too the poet's self, a half century earlier) can still be present, since

he has been sleeping for decades

in the leaves beside the stream,

his crumble of white bones, his curl of flesh

comfortable even so.

And still I hear him

and whenever I open the ponderous book of riddles

he sits with his black feet hooked to the page,

his eyes cheerful, still burning with water-love

and thus the world is full of leaves and feathers,

and comfort, and instruction.

The poem ends with a proportion (which asserts a likeness between two ratios, a:b :: c:d) summing up the whole poem, inevitably but surprisingly. (Aristotle tells us that the ability to construct inevitable surprise is the measure of a poet's art.) The body is like the stream, the soul-Oliver calls it the mind-is "like a dark bird, dipping in and out, tasting and singing," and this is not a mere description but a directive: stand in relation to your body like the bird to the stream, even when the streambed becomes your final resting place. …