The Oriole & The Ovenbird by Angela Patten
Review by Jeri Theriault
Like an experienced birder, the speaker of the poems in Angela Patten’s The Oriole & The Ovenbird (Kelsay Books, 2021), practices patience and careful observation while amassing an impressive list of species—nearly 30 in these twenty-one poems. The poet moves far beyond a lyrical description of birds, however, as she examines a human’s place in nature’s rich tapestry.
Patten delights in painterly descriptions, presenting such images as a “cardinal fully incarnadined,” in “Spring Comes to A Dying Decade”; and a swallowtail settling on a “feathery dill stalk,” in “Slow Time.” She captures the mystery of birds’ “inscrutable errands” and their music—“teacher teacher, peter peter, pretty girl” in “Evening Light at Oakledge”.
In “After Cataract Surgery” the speaker’s observations grow more metaphoric. Though she sees more clearly the “deeper yellow” goldenrod and the “tiny basket” of Queen Anne’s lace, the removal of a “gauzy cataract” also triggers a deeper understanding of her Irish father who lost an eye “to clerical brutality.” She hopes her clearer vision might restore “some crucial balance / in the universe.”
Another poem featuring the speaker’s father includes one of several references to corvids. In “Crowtime” a mass of crows gathers “into a solid-color jigsaw puzzle.” The crows’ impressive reliance on community reminds the poem’s speaker of the ritual of pub musicians, especially her father, who,
showed up night after night
to take his place in an ancient ritual
to play his fiddle, not by standing out
but by fitting in
“Crowtime” also suggests that death is part of nature’s great “jigsaw puzzle.” By the poem’s end, the narrator’s father has settled into the “collective darkness,” echoing my own quiet settling in among the birds throughout these poems.
In “Tracks,” surgery scars on the speaker’s arm are raven tracks that lead backward to the “battlefields of childhood” and forward to “my mother’s crowsfeet / inching toward my eyes.” This poem calls to mind the twin corvids in another poem, “Ravens, with one raven “forward-thinking” and the other, “memory” looking back. The speaker places herself squarely into this continuum.
“A Cacophony of Crows” contrasts the community of crows– “the sky full of their feathered shapes”– with solitary humans who “choose condominiums” to indicate their “place in the pecking order.” “Species-ism” also shows humans keeping their distance from one another and from the natural world behind “invisible fences.” “The Thing with Feathers” offers a non-corvid image of avian community. A greedy starling at the bird feeder “ascends to almost holiness” when he joins “a murmuration of thousands.”
Full of vivid description and quiet introspection, The Oriole & The Ovenbird offers a strong message about the power of stillness and observation, awareness of the creatures around us, and above all, the importance of realizing we are already a part of nature’s “jigsaw puzzle.”
Angela Patten’s publications include four poetry collections, The Oriole & the Ovenbird (Kelsay Books), In Praise of Usefulness (Wind Ridge Books), Reliquaries (Salmon Poetry, Ireland) and Still Listening (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), and a prose memoir, High Tea at a Low Table: Stories From An Irish Childhood (Wind Ridge Books). Her work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, she now lives in Burlington, Vermont, where she is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Vermont English Department.
Jeri Theriault is a Maine poet. Her publications include the award-winning In the Museum of Surrender (2013) and Radost, my red (2016). Her poems have appeared in journals such as The Texas Review, The American Journal of Poetry, The Asheville Poetry Review and Poets Reading the News. She has published reviews in The Collagist, The Adirondack Review and The Rumpus, among others. She is an associate poetry editor for the Rise Up Review and a reader for Vida Review. A Fulbright recipient and three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Jeri holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.Her thirty-four- year teaching career included six years as English department chair at the International School of Prague. She won the 2019 Maine Literary Award for Poetry (Short Works). www.jeritheriault.com
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe online.