Somebody had the bright idea of collecting Mary Oliver's bird poems, and voila! Owls and Other Fantasies was born. 16 out of 25 poems (i.e. about a third of the book) came from earlier books, as did 1 of the 2 essays. The book is obviously targeted at birders and Mary Oliver's fans; its commercial considerations overshadow whatever aesthetic merit it has.
The verse is best described as pandering. Its questions are obvious, its spirituality is tinselly, its consolations cheap. The first poem of the book begins:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
I want to shout back, "But I want to be good! I want to walk on my knees through the desert! Who are you to tell me that I don't have to?" Certainly not someone who tempts me with such an easy way out as "the world offers itself to your imagination." The cliches abound, like birds, in this collection.
The earlier poems offer glimpses of an earlier power. "The Swan," from House of Light (1990) is delicate and observant, though not without its clunkers. "Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard," from the same book, is half-in-love with death. These poems question nature as well as themselves. They do the real work of spiritual quest that the book only pretends to.