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On the Road with Mary Oliver


Several weeks ago, in the midst of National Poetry Month, I made an impulsive decision to drive out from Boston to Syracuse, New York, for a poetry reading. Mary Oliver was scheduled to fly from Logan for that reading, but I thought if I offered to intercept her on the connection from Provincetown and drive, it would give us some precious hours to talk and allow me the rare treat of hearing Mary read—an opportunity one should never pass up. Mary graciously accepted the offer of a ride and, as luck almost never has it, it was a beautiful early spring day when we set out for our five hour road trip.

The grave marker of Edna St. Vincent Millay at Steepletop. Photo by Helene Atwan
Photo by Helene Atwan.

As we approached the border of New York State, Mary interrupted our conversation to point out that we were coming up to the road to Austerlitz, a road she had driven so many times on her way to Steepletop, the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay for 25 years and then of her sister, Norma Millay Ellis. I knew that Mary had lived there too, on and off for more than half-a-dozen years after she finished high school and while she attended Vassar. The day was fine and we were making very good time, so I turned to her to ask if we should stop, and she instantly replied Yes!

And so we left the highway for a side-trip visit to Steepletop, driving the two miles up the long dirt road that skirts the acres of woodland surrounding the house, stopping to visit the graveyard where the caretaker, John Pinnie, is buried, parking near the buildings that currently house the Millay Society and even cautiously trespassing to peek inside the old farmhouse itself, where Mary spotted, through the kitchen windows, the dusty porcelain dishes displayed on a low shelf that she remembered taking down periodically to rinse off decades ago. How they needed a good rinsing at that moment. And at that moment, eerily, a phone rang inside the house: a sound neither of us had heard for a very long time—the distinct ring of an old rotary dial. We wondered who could possibly be phoning a house that clearly hadn't been occupied for eons. Mary also wondered who'd been paying the bills.

Photo by Helene Atwan.
Mary Oliver walking in the graveyard at Steepletop. Photo by Helene Atwan.

Mary pointed out the features she remembered so well on the grounds, now in such sad repair—the pool where they had spent wonderful summer days, guarded by "the Indian Boy" that Mary's partner, Molly Malone Cook, had memorialized in her beautiful photos; some painted wooden gates, once opening from thickets, now standing (and barely standing at that) alone. I snapped some photos to compare to those of Molly from another era. Neither my camera—the one that came with my cell phone—nor my eye can really bear comparison with the work of Molly Malone Cook, whose photos we published with Mary's text in Our World last fall, but the snap shots bear witness to the deterioration of a once magical place.

Finally, we took the long walk down a mossy path through the thick woods to the graves of Edna, her husband Eugen Boissevain, Norma and Charles Ellis, and Edna's mother, Cora Buzzell Millay. Along the path, blooming amid the very early spring teardrops, were some of Edna's poems—almost stations of the cross, as Mary observed, and there were at least a dozen of them. We stopped to read each, though many Mary knew by heart. We returned to the car and back onto I-90 full of sadness for the neglect of this once beautiful place and especially the neglect of the academic poetry world for this great poet. But elated by our visit none-the-less.

The next night, Mary Oliver took the stage to read to about 1,500 people gathered in Syracuse and I settled happily in my second row, just-left-of-center seat, dazzled, as always, by her words.

You may also want to read Mary Oliver's post on Edna St. Vincent Millay and Helene Atwan on the PEN-Hemingway Awards.

Photo by Molly Malone Cook
Photo by Molly Malone Cook of the  "Indian Boy" statue.
The "Indian Boy" statue today. Photo by Helene Atwan.
Photo by Molly Malone Cook
Photo of the pool by Molly Malone Cook.
Photo by Helene Atwan
The pool today. Photo by Helene Atwan.
Photo by Molly Malone Cook
Photo of a painted gate by Molly Malone Cook.
Photo of the gate today by Helene Atwan.

About the author

Helene Atwan began her career in publishing at Random House in 1976; she worked at A.A.Knopf, Viking Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Simon and Schuster, before being named director of Beacon Press in 1995. She served for eight years on the board of PEN-New England and is the Administrator of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.