In Memoriam: Three Heron Poems

Although it was rightly eclipsed in the national news by the monster tornado that destroyed so much of Joplin, Missouri, here in Minneapolis we also suffered a serious tornado on Sunday, May 22.  It hit one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, the North Side, where many blacks live, and where hundreds of folks are now homeless.  More than 5,000 people were affected by major damage to their dwellings, many of them renters with little or no insurance.  As of late Tuesday, 7,000 homes and business were still without power.  The storm was responsible for two deaths and forty-eight injuries, and while it seems minor in light of Joplin, for those involved, it is major.

A sidebar to the human catastrophe was the destruction of a heron rookery on an island in the Mississippi River.  According to the Star Tribune, the island had been home to three dozen heron nests, each with possibly three eggs or hatchlings, and tended by a pair of adult herons.  All those nests were destroyed by the storm, and only a few of the estimated 50 trees remain standing on the island.  Now all that is left are a few adult herons flying circles around the mangled island or perched on splintered remains of trees.  It is estimated that many as 180 great blue herons were killed, injured or are missing.

When I read about the birds, I thought of Robert Bly’s poem that I had read recently in his new book, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey.  I was seeking some solace in poetry, and I thought I remembered a heron poem by Mary Oliver.  That led me to a website billed (no pun intended…) as “Cool Bird Poems: An E-Anthology of Avian Poetry,” which quickly provided me with several heron poems.  Here’s the link:  It is really cool, in part because it has the poetry alphabetized by bird initials; thus H, Heron.

Here in memory of the lost herons is the Bly poem; a lovely poem by Mary Oliver; and one I especially like by Polly Brown.  I read them differently now than I would have before Sunday’s storms.


No one grumbles among the oyster clans,
And lobsters play their bone guitars all summer.
Only we, with our opposable thumbs, want
Heaven to be, and God to come, again.
There is no end to our grumbling; we want
Comfortable earth and sumptuous heaven.
But the heron standing on one leg in the bog
Drinks his dark rum all day, and is content.

By Robert Bly, from Talking into the Ear of a Donkey

SOME HERONS               

A blue preacher
flew toward the swamp,
in slow motion.

On the leafy banks,
an old Chinese poet,
hunched in the white gown of his wings,

was waiting.
The water
was the kind of dark silk

that has silver lines
shot through it
when it is touched by the wind

or is splashed upward,
in a small, quick flower,
by the life beneath it.

The preacher
made his difficult landing,
his skirts up around his knees.

The poet’s eyes
flared, as poet’s eyes
are said to do

when the poet is awakened
from the forest of meditation.
It was summer.

It was only a few moments past the sun’s rising,
which meant that the whole long sweet day
lay before them.

They greeted each other,
rumpling their gowns, for an instant,
and then smoothing them.

They entered the water,
and two more herons–
equally as beautiful–

joined them and stood just beneath them
in the black, polished water
where they fished, all day.

By Mary Oliver from House_of_Light


Because I could not bring back
the blue heron
who watched us,
out of the river’s shadows,
and then flew heavily away—

because I could not keep
her yellow metal eye
to remind me of fierceness—
I kept this stone.

Blue-grey, like the heron,
layered by millions of years in the sea,
and rounded
by thousands of years in the river,

it is the circling clouds of a storm;
it is all weathers, all calm,
all the weight that keeps you from me
and holds us to the earth.

By Polly Brown

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