Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Blue Iris (poem) by Mary Oliver

I’m picking the title poem in this collection although it’s not the first one. I’ve read the whole book through once to get an overview and will definitely be returning to dwell on some of these further.

All right, onto the poem, Blue Iris, online here:


This is actually one of my favourite poems in the whole collection. There is a beautiful economy of words and evocation of strong images.

Now that I’m free to be myself, who am I?

For me, this question in the first line works as an opener because it is interrogative, but also simple and direct, communicating something that is nearly universal as an experience, the sense of dislocation that occurs when structure is removed from our lives. We often don’t know what to do with this newfound freedom, and the rest of the poem becomes an exploration of this anchored in the act of writing itself.

Can’t fly, can’t run and see how slowly I walk

Well, I think, I can read books

These lines suggest a more specific comparison between the narrator and nature, and possibly imply a gradual process of recovery from a long illness. The books provide a way of escaping from the need to be physically active. It could also be that the comparison is to a writer, and the swift moving creatures she is observing around her outside.

“What’s that you’re doing?”
the green-headed fly shouts as it buzzes past

I close the book.
Well, I can write down words, like these, softly.

Here we beautifully see a movement, within two lines, towards expanding the hinted at idea in the previous lines. Now it seems to be moving towards setting up a disjunction between the narrator, first buried in her book, then attempting to write, and the busy life going on all around her. Then:

“What’s that you’re doing? whispers the wind, pausing
in a heap just outside the window.

Give me a little time, I say back to its staring, silver face.
It doesn’t happen all of a sudden, you know.

This is still the build up to the end of the poem, reinforcing the sense of nature conspiring against concentrating on writing, before the volte face in the next lines:

“Doesn’t it?” says the wind, and breaks open, releasing
distillation of blue iris.

And my heart panics not to be, as I long to be,
the empty, waiting, pure, speechless receptacle.

I love these last lines because they completely turn on its head what the reader thinks the poem is about, and I love when a poem does this well. Instead of nature getting in the way of writing, it is recast as the centre of what writing might be about, if the poet can be still enough to listen instead of focusing only on the words on the page. Beautiful stuff.


  1. Than you for that. I like how she does the ending - the frantic lack of stillness in the panic, not knowing how to find the stillness the heart is searching for. How does one learn to do that? By not seeking, I suppose. Interesting poem and good discussion of the poem.

  2. The last two lines are strong. Pity about the talking fly and wind.

  3. Thanks Laurie :-) I love the ending too. I will definitely be reading more of Oliver's stuff.

    Jee, heheh, I suppose sometimes personification can detract from a poem. I don't think she gets too twee with it though ;-)