Mined from the notebooks, Thursday afternoon, October 19, 2017. Posted Sunday morning, October 22.
Belted kingfisher. Copyrighted photo by Michael R. Duncan, courtesy of the National Zoo.
As far as I can recall, I’ve only ever seen a couple of kingfishers up close in my life, and both of those were on Cape Cod. Just spent some time watching another one in my mind’s eye.
This afternoon, UPS delivered a book to my office. That is to say, I was sitting out on the porch, pretending to write, when the truck pulled up. The book was Devotions, a collection of poems by Mary Oliver. When I requested it from her publisher, I thought it was her collected poems. But it’s selected poems. And it turns out, if Oliver herself did the selecting, she and I have different tastes when it comes to the poetry of Mary Oliver---from a quick perusal, it looks to me that she’s selected none of my favorite poems by her. But here’s the curious thing.
Oliver is one of my favorite poets, sometimes. Situationally. She lived and wrote on Cape Cod for fifty years (These days, she lives down in Florida) and my favorite poems of hers are ones where it’s clear she’s writing about the Cape but only when I read them when I’m on the Cape myself. When I’m there, in the place she’s describing, I think her stuff’s brilliant. Away from there, away from the ocean and the salt marshes and patches of woods full of short trees, wind-stunted scrub oaks and pitch pines, here, for instance, on my own front porch in the Hudson Valley, where the nearest body of water is a slow and narrow river, her poems seem ordinary, obvious, banal even. Some of them don’t even make sense. They don’t evoke the sense of the place that Edward Hopper’s paintings of Truro and Eastham do, no matter, where I am when I look at one. They don’t evoke any particular place or person. They’re like annotated checklists, notes to the writer’s self that are only intended to make sense to her, whoever she is, wherever she is. I’m speaking broadly here, and I’m sure this represents a failure of imagination on my part and says something about me I wouldn’t like or, at any rate, that I’d take take issue with. “Oh come off it, Lance,” is how I expect that inner monologue would begin. But it’s the case that when I’m there and I can see with my own eyes her Cape, I see her Cape, and it’s my Cape too, recognizably the place I love but still some place new to explore. I feel like I’m learning something about it I hadn’t known before, noticing things I hadn’t noticed before or seen in quite that way.
What I’m getting at is that Devotions might actually include poems I have liked when I’ve read and reread them there but I haven’t recognized any of them I’ve read so far today.
This one, though, seems like one I’d like a lot if I was reading it on the Cape, where I’d know where to walk in hopes of spotting another kingfisher. Same place I saw my first, fishing a stream winding down to the bay in the Audubon sanctuary in Wellfleet.
The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
like a blue flower, in his beak
he carries a silver leaf. I think this is
the prettiest world--so long as you don't mind
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn't have its splash of happiness?
There are more fish than there are leaves
on a thousand trees, and anyway the kingfisher
wasn't born to think about it, or anything else.
When the wave snaps shut over his blue head, the water
remains water--hunger is the only story
he has ever heard in his life that he could believe.
I don't say he's right. Neither
do I say he's wrong. Religiously he swallows the silver leaf
with its broken red river, and with a rough and easy cry
I couldn't rouse out of my thoughtful body
if my life depended on it, he swings back
over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
(as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.