Saturday, February 24, 2007

Oliver's Osprey

The Osprey

This morning
an osprey
with its narrow
black-and-white face

and its cupidinous eyes
leaned down
from a leafy tree
to look into the lake - it looked

a long time, then its powerful
shoulders punched out a little
and it fell,
it rippled down

into the water -
then it rose, carrying,
in the clips of its feet,
a slim and limber

silver fish, a scrim
of red rubies
on its flashing sides.
All of this

was wonderful
to look at,
so I simply stood there,
in the blue morning,

Then I walked away.
Beauty is my work,
but not my only work -

when the fish was gone forever
and the bird was miles away,
I came back

and stood on the shore, thinking -
and if you think
thinking is a mild exercise,

I mean, I was swimming for my life -
and I was thundering this way and that way
in my shirt of feathers -
and I could not resolve anything long enough

to become one thing
except this: the imaginer.
It was inescapable
as over and over it flung me,

without pause or mercy it flung me
to both sides of the beautiful water -
to both sides
of the knife.

from West Wind, Mariner Books, 1997.

Notes: Oliver's strength is in creating image. This is one of many poems in which she defines an object of nature clearly and cleanly without cluttering the image with any obvious oohs and aahs. She uses an Imagist-kind of diction, presenting the thing as simply as possible, relying on few modifiers, and lots of action. In The Osprey, the poet is a witness ( so I simply stood there, /in the blue morning, / looking.) , and the description mimics the act of observing without the interference of some subjective judgment on what is perceived.

She presents the image, using enjambment with perfection (in my mind), and with language meant to emphasize particularities:
in the clips of its feet,
a slim and limber

silver fish, a scrim
of red rubies
on its flashing sides.

(What I would give to write like that!)

Only after the image has been presented does she inject her self into the picture.

Many of her poems follow this scheme: clear image with few modifiers, the silent act of observing, a focus on the object being observed and then the poet's return to remark on the image. When Oliver does inject herself into this poem, it is as a mirror or as a human replication of what she has observed. She points out the danger of intellectualizing the actions of the natural world: "if you think / thinking is a mild exercise, / beware!"

Everything has a purpose in her poem. The osprey, its act of watching, its swift attack, the flashing fish with its scrim of red rubies - an Imagist would probably stop right here. But Oliver divides the image from introspection and returns to comment. When she does this, it's to become both the predatory bird and its victim. She is "thundering" for direction in her "shirt of feathers." She is "swimming for her life." Oliver incorporates what she witnesses as a part of her own identity. Then she takes a step beyond oneness with nature to explain her own nature, that of the "Imaginer."

So in this one poem, she uses the natural world to present an image, and then makes it more than image. In this short poem, she has described her role, and the presumed role of others who see themselves as poets (Imaginers). That role is to become both the predator and the prey in order to create the image with accuracy.

But besides all that, Mary Oliver has such an amazing, deft touch, such a balance in presenting an image. Her diction never gets in the way; it reinforces, it paints a portrait so vividly that the reader can't help but imagine the scene, and become another witness, standing at the edge of the lake next to Oliver.

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