WriOursWhoMo – April Poems: Mary Oliver’s “Starlings in Winter”

graffiti of black birds on a wire

Starlings in Winter
Mary Oliver

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard, I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

Good morning, good morning.

There’s our morning cardinal waking up, piercing the quiet with his song. Just now, when the puppy and I were walking across the lawn, I looked up at the sky and the stars seemed especially close, like a blanket, and there just overhead was a shooting star.

For this month’s poem-writing project, I created a document with 55 poems in it, one to a page, and then I use a random number generator on the internet to pick a poem for me each morning. And so today’s is Mary Oliver’s Starlings in Winter.

 I generally imagine Mary Oliver wandering through the woods on her morning walks with her dogs, noticing and poeming herself into her day, scouring the quiet earth for delights she could share with us. But in this poem, she’s in the ashy city. She’s dumbstruck for a moment while walking down the road, maybe on the way to a teaching gig or a day job, when a flock of starlings, those most ordinary and common birds all across the country, lift up off the phone wires and murmurate instantly, bringing themselves together like a breath, communicating in ways we cannot see or understand. She is not feeling especially frolicsome or dangerous in this poem, but she wants to get back there. How many of us have had this feeling? How many of us are feeling it right now?

When I’ve shared this poem before, I’ve read it as a poem of incitement and encouragement, but being with it again this morning, I feel the frustration beating at its heart, or maybe that is its mother: the I in the poem is living a life that feels too safe, or maybe that is too heavy – full of grief that she wants to be able to move beyond. This is a poem of longing and hungering, isn’t it, for healing and for flight.

We small and dangerous and rageful things, we blips of wanting powdering around on our booted feet, looking down so we don’t stumble, looking close ahead at what’s next, forgetting the flight in us and around us: This is the second poem this month, I realize, about a woman watching birds at flight and wanting to join them – seeking to find the memory of flight in her own body, reaching for a bodily knowing that she has grown too far away from.

I’d like to ask the poet the story of this poem, but she is gone now – maybe it exists on the internet somewhere, that story, that telling, but part of the magic of poems is being able to imagine our own context into every poem, into every reading of every poem. The poem brings us an instant in time, a set of meanings and a possibility of words, and it requires a reader to bring the rest: a comprehension, a contextualization, a meeting, is what I mean to say, a body and a breath and a life that exhales the meaning, for that reader, into the words. How does a poem work? Brilliant minds have worked for hundreds of years to put that into words.

Now birds are all waking up, and I will join them soon for the walk on the small, high-tide beach with the puppy. I do not miss the ashy city. Something in me is remembering dangerousness and improbable beauty. Something in me wants to reach out beyond the heavy insistence of grief and loss toward the sky, toward the just brightening morning, toward the pulse of the waves, toward the joy of my loves and this life.

We don’t have to forget what has harmed us in order to continue to live – I don’t believe we even have to forgive. But we can slowly turn our attention away from the memory, from the history, from the wound, to the candle flickering in her glass jar, to the robin making her way across the morning lawn, to the puppy’s sleeping breaths and the strength we carry every minute of every day in our skin and in our hearts. Sometimes joy is the most dangerous thing. That’s what I have this morning. Dangerous, I mean, for a system that would see me hamstrung always with inarticulable rage. Sometimes the most dangerous thing is delight, and seeking to share what we know, what we have learned, how to live within a system that wants us small and malleable, how to resist what wants to break us apart and eat us, how to feed slowly and then, once we are able, how to feed hard and full and with laughter in our eyes.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~~ ~~

I am not sure what those last lines mean in the writing above, but that’s the pleasure of the morning freewrite. Do you have a response to Mary Oliver’s poem this morning? Set a timer for twenty minutes, like I just did, and let yourself write – whether into the computer or onto the page, it doesn’t matter, whichever you prefer. Drop into a word or a phrase or a feeling or a memory or a story that arises when you read the poem – and follow the writing wherever it seems to want you to go, even if it takes a sharp right turn away from birds or flight into some new terrain. And be as easy with you as you can today, ok/ I will try to do the same. I’m grateful for your words and your wisdom and your dangerousness today, you know.


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