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Poetry Sundays: Mary Oliver

Starlings in Winter

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.

~Mary Oliver, from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays, 2003

One of my most vivid memories from childhood is witnessing a starling murmuration. I remember standing in a field with my father, watching as the black cloud rose, expanded, and spun into amorphous shapes in the sky. I can still recall that delicious feeling of wonder and exhilaration, of my breath catching in my throat and pure joy reverberating throughout my little body. It is this memory that sprang to my mind as I read Mary Oliver’s poem. Her description of dancing starlings in the sky spoke to my childhood experience and for a moment I recaptured that tingling feeling of joy.

I have been in the midst of a literal and figurative winter–life has been hard and I have been grieving that reality. But as spring approaches, I find myself longing to shed the heaviness and darkness of sadness. Oliver’s last stanza speaks to me, I want to think again of noble things, to be frolicsome and afraid of nothing. I want to fly through the world and feel all the joy and beauty it has to offer. I want to carry with me the wonder of starlings.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and feelings in the comments!


Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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4 Responses

  1. Melody says:

    Thank you, mraynes! And Mary Oliver. Lately flight and wings are everywhere in my thoughts, my heart, my soul. Sometimes I feel my bones grow lighter, like I’m preparing to take flight. (It may also be osteopenia, so, please, everyone, take your calcium and Vitamin D.)

    But, seriously. Let’s all fly, together, shall we?

  2. Emily U says:

    Oh, this was beautiful! I absolutely love Mary Oliver, and your meditation on her poem touched my heart.

  3. Caroline says:

    Some of my very favorite poems are Mary Oliver poems. I had not read this one before. How glorious it is. And I love your own reflections too — I often feel a similar desire to be frolicsome and full of joy and shed the things that weigh me down.

  4. EmilyCC says:

    I love the image of the starlings juxtaposed with her grief. Maybe because I hate starlings, I see this as a way of searching for beauty in the pure desire to move beyond grief, itself a noisy and chunky beast. Thank you, mraynes. This is lovely.

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