LUMINOUS THINGS Mary Oliver “The Kingfisher”


from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Milosz p. 20

In coming to what seems most intimately one’s own, one comes upon what is not self-owned. Seeking to own itself, the owning of this selving darkens down into a cave that is not its own. The selving claiming exemplary singularity is undergrounded by nothing but an opening upon nothing. It is an abyss, it is a gap—-the gap is a chaos in the etymological sense. The singular selving is split, double, redoubling within itself, in an opening of space it cannot claim for its own. I would say that in this gap that “the porosity” is to be rediscovered anew and in this is to be recovered the sources of true creativity.
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, p. 74.

Mary Oliver (1935-2019) MAY be THE most popular poet in America. Yet a close reading of her poems reveals an uncanny talent for exposing the shaky grounds of that popularity. We can get a handle on “The Kingfisher” by attending to the “voice.”

As we’ve shown, “voice” is itself a misleading concept. Taken to point to the voice of the poet—-that singular, albeit creative, thing—-the voice of the poem emerges as a complex unstable blend of insights generated by the flow of forms through the duration of the poem. It is not a single thing. It is polyvocal, grounded in the equivocity of communication in the between shared by poet and reader.

Voice is a dimension of a deeper structure: selving. The poem selves the poet. Or seems to. Maybe doubly?

Oliver is particularly brilliant at showing the happening of selving. In “The Kingfisher,” the process of selving IS the lyric narrative. Starting with a Hopkin’s-level description, the opening captures the aesthetic event of this thing we call Kingfisher—-even the compound word suggests an unstable combination between culture and nature.

The extraordinary luminosity of the image is both a Milozian epiphany and a pretext for searching the equivocities: the voice responds immediately in a contrasting sentimental mode. This plunges the reader into the dialectical middle of the narrative. The reader, having “seen” the Kingfisher, now must re-see it as the poem explores the “world” of the “you.” The reader is caught in the middle between pretty and dying: superlative prettiest and coyly qualified dying.

Next stage: from description to garrulity, the voice seems on edge, defensive: don’t I deserve a splash of happiness? I want to BE the sovereign Kingfisher, my prey is a silver leaf; I am a bejeweled blue flower. Death has nothing to do with it! Just a little happiness! Leaves are a dime-a-dozen; anyway I, myself the Kingfisher, wasn’t born to THINK!

Oliver’s boldness in uncovering the willful selving of the self-indulgent poet/reader is profoundly double. It is both satirical and sympathetic. The self has taken the plunge into the otherness of the Kingfisher. It is in the abyss of equivocal identity where there be dragons.

Desmond’s text shows us this stage of the creative process: the willful loss of “self.” It’s HARD. The voice of the poem has become increasingly shrill as it splits with its old self which longed to be/have the otherness of the Kingfisher. Poets really do risk facing their nullify as the voice of the poem gathers strength. (I think of the energies unleashed by all the selving going on in Geraldine Clarkson’s debut book of poems, “Monica’s Overcoat of Flesh.”)

The intensity of the closing lines, the wail erupting from the poet’s “thoughtful body” doubled by the worth of its very life! Thus exposed, this desire to be somebody, someTHING, else, beautifully (like the opening images but now in the new charged voice) emerges in a complex phrasing of sameness and difference. Is the reader WITH the voice of the poem in its doubleness? Something, anything—-perfectly!

As Desmond says, longing is belonging. Milosz’s headnote suggests the community of readers he has in mind. But it is not the community of the poem’s metaxologica community, which is open to the (dangerous) porosity. The new reader/poetic self is profoundly at odds with Milosz’s pained acceptance of the diminished life of rational consciousness. (We know a different Milosz from the poems.) The mindful reader—-a creation in this instance of Oliver’s uncanny art—-has other ideas.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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