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Mary Oliver reads "Night and the River": A Video

By Rob Arnold


Mary Oliver's incantatory poem “Night and the River,” first published in the 2008 collection Red Bird, is full of the mystery and natural wonder that have come to define Oliver’s unique vision, a vision that has, over her extraordinary fifty-year career, made her into one of the most beloved living poets we have. But there's something unexpectedly haunting, slightly frightening about this poem that makes it stand out even in her vast oeuvre. All the elements add up to an experience that's less ephiphanic than unforgettable: the moonlit silhouette, the predator's act of violent consumption, the narrator’s vulnerability and empathetic ambivalence, and the memory of it all that is at first predatory itself—intruding on the narrator's consciousness even after she has returned to the safety of home—and then transfiguring. It is a terrific example of what a poet can do when operating at the top of her faculties, and of the powerful compression of poetry itself, containing both destruction and creation, darkness as well as light.

Mary Oliver read this poem for us in 2010, as part of Many Milesthe second of two audio CD collections of her poetry that Beacon has released. Maybe it’s the subject matter, but I detect in her voice a touch of the moral ambiguity that she writes so beautifully about. I was trying to channel that voice, and the sharp uncertainty of the poem—the dark water, the bear slowly resolving into awareness—when creating a video to visualize this work. Much of the power in any poem must remain unspoken, entering the reader like that metastatic “tune” Oliver writes of at the end of this poem. My hope is that the video works that way, evoking rather than illustrating, and returning to those viewing some fragment of the elegance and savagery of the original experience of the poem.


Night and the River


I have seen the great feet
into the river

and I have seen moonlight
along the long muzzle

and I have seen the body
of something
scaled and wonderful

slumped in the sudden fire of its mouth,
and I could not tell
which fit me

more comfortably, the power,
or the powerlessness;
neither would have me

entirely; I was divided,
by sympathy,

pity, admiration.
After a while
it was done,

the fish had vanished, the bear
lumped away
to the green shore

and into the trees. And then there was only
this story.
It followed me home

and entered my house—
a difficult guest
with a single tune

which it hums all day and through the night—
slowly or briskly,
it doesn’t matter,

it sounds like a river leaping and falling;
it sounds like a body
falling apart. 

Mary Oliver


This poem is reproduced from Red Bird, Beacon Press, 2008; recorded on Many Miles, Beacon Press, 2010. Copyright © Mary Oliver. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.



Rob Arnold is the digital marketing associate for Beacon Press, and editor of the Beacon Broadside. He received his MFA in poetry from Emerson College.