Buddha in a Birdcage and Other Poems by Betty Oliver is a collection of poems and photos of her mixed media art, which was published posthumously by the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts where she once taught. The executor of her estate Billy Bernstein indicated that she performed her poems, sometimes “fighting her way out of a giant paper bag.” In the Foreword, Stuart Kestenbaum says, “Reading these poems you may not be able to see Betty fighting her way out to begin to speak, but you will feel the power — and the need to speak — that she brought to this work.” (pg. 1) In many cases, this is true. You can imagine her up on a stage struggling through a paper bag, trying to get those words out. Some of these poems have lines that repeat, and it is almost like there is so much passion behind them that the voice of the poem stutters.
Untitled (pg. 11)
The bear’s purple gutted chest
gave off steam suggesting life
he looked stunned not dead
the men still high from his blood
pranced and preened by the pick up truck
I went closer to look
the heat from his cooling heart
met my gaze.
Her artwork often involves the use of paper in unusual ways, and like her art, these poems are unusual. Her verse is at times playful, but also stern in its criticism of how the world operates or is expected to operate. She’s interested in providing readers with a new perspective on the ordinary, and she holds nature as sacred and tangible. Living on a dairy farm, she had a very close knowledge of milking cows, and what jobs men were expected to do every day. In “Fenceposts,” she talks about how men use posthole diggers and women do not, and how in her family, she has held onto her father’s posthole digger as her mother held onto her father’s twenty-two pistol.
From her time on a dairy farm to her moments in New York City, Oliver’s poems are moments in time that recall things from her past and remind her about the ephemeral nature life, especially when she falls ill. Buddha in a Birdcage and Other Poems by Betty Oliver offers readers just a little of Oliver’s work, and what’s here can seem unfinished at times, but overall, her work is about our moments in time and the thought we do or don’t give them as we live them.
About the Poet:
Betty was truly a multi-media artist. Her visual art was focused on sculpture incorporating paper, paper pulp, and found objects. Though born, raised and perhaps haunted by her childhood in Eastern Virginia, she eventually elected to make New York her home, establishing a home and studio in upper Manhattan and channeling the vibrant texture and rhythms of the city and her neighborhood into her life and work. In a sense, the city became her pallet. She incorporated all manner of discarded and found objects into her art. Old phone books, calendars, Chinatown boxes, newspapers and jigsaw puzzles all were processed into her creative output of sculpture, paintings and photos.
Around 1990 she began to write and perform poetry, and created a powerful body of written work. As a poet, Betty was an engaging and compelling performer, often beginning readings by fighting her way out of a giant paper bag. As in her visual work, her writing echoes the many voices of her experience. A scream from the sidewalk on 110th Street, an impassioned plea to a lover, a strident declaration from the pulpit all resonate with truth, soul, and authenticity.
Betty was a very effective and sought after teacher and led many classes and workshops primarily at Penland School of Craft in the mountains of North Carolina, and Haystack Mountain School of Craft on the Maine coast. The book will be marketed by these schools and any profits will be given to the scholarship funds of these two schools.