Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays by Mary Oliver

Every morning



along the beach


as though he found the world


and wonderful,

and, without a doubt,


made especially for him.

– from “Crow”

Most annoyingly, I can’t figure out how to format this poem properly – how to remove the extra space between lines, how to indent each line successively so that the words step along the page as the crow does the beach. However, this is a taste that leaves me wanting more, and I hope it will have the same effect on you, properly formatted or not.


The subtitle of this collection is Poems and Essays, but the distinction is minute. Mary Oliver’s essays, here, are poetry without line breaks. The essays carry on the careful syntax, the utter necessity of each word exactly where it is, and the extraordinary poise of each phrase, which seems to follow the shape of the bird(s) described. The vocabulary and focused vision are the same, as are the understanding of the connection of living things and the small distance between life and death.

Themes? Death. Grief. Life. Endurance. Beauty. Awakening to awareness. Mystery. beauty.

Oh yeah, and birds.

I know that authors can completely invent events and personae, but the detail and effect of the lines in these poems is such that I am perfectly able to believe that Mary Oliver went outside and wrote down exactly what happened and exactly what she thought. These poems breathe.

I am also perfectly willing to believe that half of these were completely made up, or amalgamations of multiple events, or half-fictionalized. These words have life in them; whether wholly invented or wholly memoir, these words hold my, the reader’s, trust; they read as truth.

One of the beauties of these works is the way the stanzas and paragraphs build on each other for meaning and strength. And I can’t quote an entire poem, or the whole book, much as I would like to. So I will mention a few of my favourites (a curtailed list):

  • Crow
  • Bird
  • Backyard
  • I looked up
  • Starlings in winter
  • September

And there I had better stop, if only to let you go to find these and the rest for yourself.

Recommended. Read slowly. Read aloud. Read again.


Also recommended: Thirst by Mary Oliver, a collection of poems written after and about the death of her partner, photographer Molly Malone Cook (1925-2005). Extraordinary. I think Birds and Other Fantasies could be enjoyed by middle grader readers and older, and Thirst be best appreciated by teens and older. There is no upper limit on loving good poetry, and the lower limit is probably absurd. 🙂