Owls and Other Fantasies

Mary Oliver


Oliver, Mary. Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2003. Paperback: 9780807068687.


“Within these pages Mary Oliver collects twenty-six of her poems about the birds that have been such an important part of her life-hawks, hummingbirds, and herons; kingfishers, catbirds, and crows; swans, swallows and, of course, the snowy owl, among a dozen others-including ten poems that have never before been collected. She adds two beautifully crafted essays, “Owls,” selected for the Best American Essays series, and “Bird,” a new essay that will surely take its place among the classics of the genre. In the words of the poet Stanley Kunitz, “Mary Oliver’s poetry is fine and deep; it reads like a blessing. Her special gift is to connect us with our sources in the natural world, its beauties and terrors and mysteries and consolations.””


Wild Geese

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves” (1)

“announcing your place / in the family of things” (1)

The Dipper

“the world is full of leaves and feathers, / and comfort, and instruction” (3)

“I have lived / simply, / in the joy of the body” (3)


“How lightly, altogether, they accept / the great task, of carrying life / forward!” (4)

“Around their wreath of darkness / the leaves of the world unfurl” (5)


“a stutter of dark lightning” (14)

“But the great horned I can’t imagine in any such proximity—if one of those should touch me, it would touch to the center of my life, and I must fall. They are the pure wild hunters of our world” (15)

“I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world” (15)

“terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life—as, for example, my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I live too. There is only one world” (16)

“a sweetness so palpable and excessive” (16)

“Are the roses not also—even as the owl is—excessive?” (16)

“sheer and silent abundance” (16)

“struck to the heart and saturated with a simple joy” (16)


“this is not something / of the red fire, this is / heaven’s fistful / of death and destruction” (20)

The Kingfisher

“this is / the prettiest world—so long as you don’t mind / a little dying” (23)

“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” (23)

Herons in Winter in the Frozen Marsh

“mired in nature” (24)

Yes! No!

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work” (27)


“He picks his pond, and the soft thicket of his world” (36)

“When he is not singing, he is listening” (36)

“For he will never sing for the kingdom of dollars. / For he will never grow pockets in his gray wings” (37)

Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard

“it’s not size but surge that tells us / when we’re in touch with something real” (38)


“Injured gulls are common; nature’s maw receives them again implacably; almost never is a rescue justified by a return to health and freedom. And this gull was close to that deep maw” (41)

“He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so” (45)


“who has seen yet anything cleaner, bolder / more gleaming, more certain of its philosophy / than the eye he turns back” (53)

White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field

“maybe death / isn’t darkness, after all, / but so much light / wrapping itself around us—” (55)

“scalding, aortal light—” (55)

Starlings in Winter

“only the silent confirmation / that they are this notable thing” (56)

“full of gorgeous life. / Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us” (57)


“I had not time to haul out all / the dead stuff” (65)

“The paths grew / damp and uncomfortable and mossy until / nobody could get through but a mouse or a / shadow. Blackberries, ferns, leaves, litter / totally without direction management supervision” (65)

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