"The feathers of some unimaginable bird"

Photo by Pixabay

I was reading the lovely winter poem “White-Eyes” by Mary Oliver for my last poetry seminar, and sort of expecting one of her characteristic detailed observations of a creature or specific scene—but by the end of the poem I felt like something had slipped past me or perhaps through the words on the page in a way that was unusual.

Does this happen to you, when you read it?

White-Eyes
BY MARY OLIVER

In winter
    all the singing is in
         the tops of the trees
             where the wind-bird

with its white eyes
    shoves and pushes
         among the branches.
             Like any of us

he wants to go to sleep,
    but he’s restless—
         he has an idea,
             and slowly it unfolds

from under his beating wings
    as long as he stays awake.
         But his big, round music, after all,
             is too breathy to last.

So, it’s over.
    In the pine-crown
         he makes his nest,
             he’s done all he can.

I don’t know the name of this bird,
    I only imagine his glittering beak
         tucked in a white wing
             while the clouds—

which he has summoned
    from the north—
         which he has taught
             to be mild, and silent—

thicken, and begin to fall
    into the world below
         like stars, or the feathers
               of some unimaginable bird

that loves us,
    that is asleep now, and silent—
         that has turned itself
             into snow.

Poetry Foundation

There is something about that transition going on in the middle of the poem, from what at first seems like a literal bird making music in the tops of trees, to clouds, to wind, to snow, and back to “the feathers / of some unimaginable bird” that “turn[s] itself / into snow” again. And this latter bird somehow “loves us”. It is strangely “asleep now, and silent”. With my Christian eyes I can’t help but think of Christ, and death, and the Holy Spirit.

Confused, I let my eyes slide back up the page to the title for some guidance, where I expected to be told the name of the bird (a name which the speaker tells us in stanza six she doesn’t know), and I was surprised to see instead “White Eyes”– a phrase of the second stanza that I had barely noticed during my first reading. What kind of bird has “white eyes”? What kind of animal has white eyes? Human beings do, around their irises–but not any bird I’ve ever heard of.

In the first stanza the speaker mentions the “wind-bird”, which at first I took to be yet another avian creature with which I’m unfamiliar, but just to see I googled “wind-bird,” expecting pictures of something lovely and “white-eyed,” and instead the first thing that came up was a description of the wuchowsen. This term is affiliated with the Abenaki, Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Mi’kmaq native tribes who evidently lived in what is now known as New England.

According to the site, the wuchowsen, “wind-bird” or “wind-eagle,” is

a gigantic immortal bird spirit whose wings make the wind. Though Wuchowsen is monstrous in size and the winds he creates can be deadly, he is not treated as a monster in Wabanaki legends, but rather as a natural force of the world that must be respected. In most legends, either Glooskap or a mortal hero attempts to stop Wuchowsen’s wings from flapping, only to find that the world cannot survive without wind; Wuchowsen is restored to power, but is either persuaded to moderate the wind he creates or forced to do so by having one of his wings tied or broken. (Native-languages.org)

I have a feeling Oliver knew all this.

In this poem, in what seems to me to be a rare instance for Oliver, her subject is not literal– or, at least, not physical. The wind-bird is perhaps a kind of metaphor for the wind itself that “sings” in the “tops of the trees” and “shoves and pushes / among the branches”—a kind of movement more appropriate to breezes than to birds, I realize now.

The bird has “white-eyes”, and, taking my cue from my previous discovery, I found that there was a leader of the Lenape (Delaware) people during the revolutionary war era named Koquethagechton, or “White Eyes,” who sought to negotiate a relationship with Americans, and who married a woman named Rachel Doddridge, the daughter of English colonists who was adopted into the Lenape people after attacking her family’s farm.

I’m not sure if Oliver had him in mind in the background of this poem, or if the titular character (?) has white eyes because he is a “wind-bird”, or because he is associated with snow and winter. But the historical association with this man is possible.

At any rate, the bird is “restless,” the speaker tells us— like the wind always is, and like we human beings often are in winter: sleepy, but somehow unable to completely succumb to hibernation. The bird “has an idea” which turns into “big, round music” that is “too breathy to last.”

I’m not sure in what sense this wind makes a nest in the “pine-crown.” But the word “glittering” the speaker uses to describe the wind-bird’s beak is an adjective more appropriate, I would think, for snow.

It’s easier for me to imagine wind “summon[ing]” clouds “from the north” — but then, once more, the movement of the poem gets dream-like and mysterious. The clouds turn into an (interestingly un-named) snow that is likened to “stars”.

There’s this strange, graceful, almost circular motion (like falling snowflakes?) as the poem wanders from the image of the “wind-bird”, to what wind does in trees, to how wind calls clouds and sends snow falling down to the ground like stars, and then also like the feathers of a bird, pulling us back once again to the opening image.

The speaker admits that her subject is, for all of these poetic descriptions on the page, “unimaginable”—perhaps most of all because he “loves us.”

Strange, and beautiful.


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