The Oven Bird
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
Everything you wanted to know about Ovenbirds – the actual bird having a nest like a dome, an enclosure seemingly separate from the rest of nature, is probably relevant to this poem.
The poem itself is divided into six sentences. It begins by introducing the bird: when and where it occurs, and how we notice it. Then there are three sentences that begin “he says,” where the bird interprets nature’s motions for us. After that, we are given a sentence describing the bird’s uniqueness, and finally a sentence telling us the bird’s question.
Where the bird is located ties into the time of year: the sun is literally too bright and hot to dwell in always. It also “makes the solid tree trunks sound again:” when was the last time trees made sounds? More than likely spring, when life was just reemerging, not becoming abundant and spreading itself far and wide. The oven bird seems to mimic us in our separateness from the seasons: we are not wholly removed from nature’s cycles, perhaps we are even put in a particular place by nature. But we still seem separate from the rest of life, if only because of memory.
After all, we see as this one bird “sees” – maybe it doesn’t know anything, maybe it is only focusing our attention. We remember when the leaves were more alive and when flowers were more plentiful. How beautiful trees that fruited once were, and how even they have lost their appeal. And we are most sensitive to the dust being over all.
The allusion to the Fall is in the center of the list of motions, but it is not the first observation of the bird. Old leaves and disappearing flowers are what first confront us: it is the smallest of changes, perhaps even the possibility of change, that brings us to the wrong tree. In this poem, we get there, but are we tempted? Maybe on those sunny days a moment overcast we’re out plucking fruit, but maybe not. The overriding concern is not morality, but mortality – how is it we even care for something like justice when we are a part of an inevitable cycle of decay?
What happens next and finally is most curious: the bird is distinguished from other birds, brought closer to us in its asking a question, and yet ultimately distinguished from us too. We’re left standing with the question of our own mortality, the Ovenbird itself is immortal. It does not cease because it knows “in singing not to sing.” There is only one thing more permanent than Being, as you are well aware: Nothing.
So what do we make of a diminished thing? Ultimately, we see nature’s cycles and know that with every Fall, there is a Spring. And we know that isn’t our lot – the changes we experience are far more permanent. That marks us as a part of nature that diminishes.
But the Ovenbird is immortal inasmuch as it echoes Nothingness. Nature is beyond us because all it does is diminish: it only rises again to waste away again. Are we ourselves really a diminished thing?
The Ovenbird is a loud, annoying bird, bugging us in our shelter. It’s our question, not his, and we make something of a diminished thing every day.