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KOOKABURRAS, by             Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography


Mary Oliver's "Kookaburras" grapples with the emotional complexities of indecision, guilt, and lost opportunity, anchored by the metaphor of caged kookaburras desiring freedom. The poem opens with a proclamation that is both universal and deeply intimate: "In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator." This serves as the lens through which the events of the poem are filtered-a lens of regret, a moment of action that became inaction.

"In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting / to stride out of a cloud and lift its wings," the poem continues, introducing an aspirational image. This god of flowers stands as a counterpoint to the coward and procrastinator, encapsulating the dichotomy of potential and fear that resides in every individual. Oliver's phrasing suggests that this god of flowers is latent, a seed of extraordinary potential that, in the right circumstances, could flourish. The notion of striding "out of a cloud" evokes a divine or miraculous transformation, a transcendence of our lesser selves.

Then comes the crux of the narrative: "The kookaburras, pressed against the edge of their cage, / asked me to open the door. / Years later I remember how I didn't do it, / how instead I walked away." This is an experience that is laden with meaning; the kookaburras are symbolic of opportunities, decisions, or even lives that one has the power to influence but doesn't. They are described as having "the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs," infusing them with a warmth and emotional clarity that accentuates the speaker's regret.

The kookaburras' wish is humble: "They didn't want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly / home to their river." This straightforward desire heightens the tragedy of inaction. The river symbolizes a return to their natural state, a desire that goes unanswered. The speaker contemplates their fate: "By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them." The "great darkness" is a foreboding euphemism for death or obscurity, and it serves as a solemn reminder of the cost of inaction and indecision.

The speaker's reflection turns inward: "As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers. / Nothing else has changed either." This self-assessment is tinged with sorrow and resignation. They haven't transcended their limitations; the coward and procrastinator are still very much present. The phrase "not yet" suggests a glimmer of hope or potential, albeit tarnished by the passage of time and the weight of past inactions.

Oliver's poem concludes with evocative imagery that mirrors the emotional state of the speaker: "Someone tosses their white bones to the dung-heap. / The sun shines on the latch of their cage. / I lie in the dark, my heart pounding." The "white bones" symbolize the remains of opportunities lost, tossed aside without reverence. The "latch of their cage" being illuminated by the sun implies that chances for liberation or change, however ignored, are ever-present, making the speaker's inertia all the more painful.

Metaphorically, kookaburras, the birds, serve as a multi-layered symbol. On one level, they represent lost opportunities or unfulfilled potentials, standing as a poignant reminder of the consequences of inaction. On another level, the kookaburras could symbolize the neglected or oppressed parts of oneself or society.

"Kookaburras" encapsulates the dissonance between potential and action, courage and cowardice, in a narrative that is as compelling as it is unsettling. It's a poignant lesson on the consequences of choices unmade and the haunting residue of regret.


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