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Remembering Mary Oliver

By Helene Atwan

Picture of Helene and Mary surrounded by books

In 2003, having miraculously convinced Mary Oliver and her tough-minded agent and partner, Molly Malone Cook, to return to Beacon as a publishing home, Mary, Molly and I hit something of a brick wall.  Our shared vision was to publish a second volume of New and Selected Poems (Beacon had published the first volume in 1997, and it had won the National Book Award).  The book was all ready to go, but one of her interim publishers refused to grant permission for the poems from two books.  I drove out to Provincetown—the first of dozens of visits—to sit and stew.  What really irked me was that the poems Mary had written for the “New” section were just so good. Mary and I took their dog Benjamin for a walk on the beach (there were two dogs then, though the big dog, Bear, was failing and stayed behind with Molly) and came back determined to publish the new poems in a stand-alone volume.  That book, Why I Wake Early, remains one of my favorites, although the book that followed Molly’s death just two years later, Thirst, I still believe is her best single volume.

At Molly’s funeral, I sat next to Mary while we listened to her friends speak about her. She’d never actually been tough-minded, in fact, as I discovered in the few short years I knew her. Quite the opposite. John Waters opened by addressing the urn on the altar:  “Oh no, Molly, we’re in a church!”  Sometime later, Mary, her dear friend Bishop Thomas Shaw (who Molly had always called “The Bish”), and I took that urn out onto the waters (and yes, we knew this wasn’t exactly legal) and scattered Molly’s ashes, along with many hands-full of leaves and flower petals.  We had to huddle on the bottom of the too-small boat for warmth and stability, but somehow, despite our mission or possibly because of it, it was a joyous moment.

And after that, sitting in the Provincetown home where a chair lift had been installed to allow Molly to get upstairs to their impossibly sunny bedroom, and Molly’s oxygen tank still sat rigid and abandoned, Mary and I decided to do a book of Molly’s photographs.  It was the very definition of a labor of love.   I sat with her on the floor of that upstairs room for hour upon hour going through a file cabinet crammed with prints and negatives.  We were looking for very special photos—notably the ones of Molly’s former love, Lorraine Hansberry.  And then, of course, there were a couple, somewhere, of Eleanor Roosevelt. If only we could dig them out.  The artists they had known were so impressive (and they slept under an enormous canvas by Robert Motherwell, a gift from the artist).  And Norman Mailer!  Mary and Molly had both worked for Mailer when he lived down the street in Ptown.  Mary had typed several of his manuscripts and Molly was his personal assistant for some years.  Mary pulled out old cassette tapes and played messages from Norman to Molly (she’d had to record them because otherwise she might forget an important detail).  We laughed at his audacity.  (He once insisted Molly go out in a terrible snow storm to see if his kids were stuck on the road….).  But we unearthed treasures, and along with them came stories of their life together, some (but by no means all) of which she wrote in her loving essay for the book, which became Our World.

Over those years, especially after Mary adopted her beloved little dog Percy, I came often to visit, and we walked on the beach, or sometimes in the woods.  We picked and ate mushrooms (though I admit to having some trepidation about this, knowing nothing about them; Mary sautéed them up jauntily and I figured, after all, this wouldn’t be such a bad way to die). I should have trusted her, she knew the woods intimately.   She planted pencil nubs here and there in the tree limbs, and always had scraps of paper in her pockets, in case an image or a line came to her in her solitary treks.  They often did.

Once when I had arrived on a very cold day, with bread and cheese from Cardullo’s, we sat down at her stereotypically rickety wooden table to look through the poems she had written for the new poems section of the revived New and Selected Poems, Volume Two, and I noticed some pages tucked into a pocket at the back of the binder.  They were rejects, she told me, but of course I insisted on seeing them.  There was one, in fact, that was magical.  I had to talk her into it, and she insisted on changing the pronoun in the title (not wanting anyone to read the poem autobiographically) but “The Poet with His Head in His Hands” was not lost to us.  I was able to take a couple of poems out of that back-pocket vortex for Thirst as well.  But I suspect, since I had also known her to tear up poems and dump them unceremoniously in the trash, that she might have planted them, waiting for me to pry them out.

I went to most of her readings, of course, and I came to feel sorry for anyone who didn’t have the chance to hear her read.  We didn’t do audiobooks at the time, but I proposed recording one to her.  She was typically reluctant, but came around.  We settled on the idea of doing a unique audiobook, drawn from her Beacon books, with the addition of some others; forty poems in all.  Then we found a studio on the Cape.  I drove down to bring her to the studio, got to listen to her record, came back and collected her for some revisions.  She wrote a brief “performance note” which we added to the elegant package that we named At Blackwater Pond, which came out in 2006.  She was quite pleased, in the end, and I easily convinced her to do a second one, Many Miles, just a few years later. 

Coming to work in the mornings for a decade was always brightened by the hope that I would find a new poem by Mary sitting waiting on the fax machine (one of the few machines she owned, she didn’t use a computer until 2010, even then rarely. I brought my laptop to help her key prose, including the preface to Best American Essays, which she worked on with my husband, who had also become a friend of hers by then).

We took trips together as well, to Nashville (which neither of us could actually abide, but Vanderbilt was lovely), to Philadelphia, to New York.  I dragged her to the gift shop at the Metropolitan.  In all the years I knew her, I never saw her buy anything.  She’d keep some loose bills in her pants pocket, but she just wasn’t interested in things.  (I bought a pair of earrings for my daughter, and she used it in a poem, which she later signed for Emily, and which hangs in her living room now.)

She had never been to museums, which at first shocked me, then made sense; why see what humans create when nature is full of such riches.  But she did want to see van Gogh’s flowers (we used his “Irises” on the cover of Blue Iris) and so on one trip, where she stayed with me for a change, I took her to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.  She had read a story in the news about the rediscovery of an Egyptian statue (a cat or a lion….an animal in any case) and she insisted that we find its “mate” in the museum and formally addressed the ancient stone work to deliver the good news.  Though I have managed to forget the details (and Google failed me here), I never can forget her pride and sly delight in making this speech. She had what Bostonians might call a “wicked” sense of humor, which shows up constantly in her work.  Note the poem she titled “There Are a Lot of Mockingbirds in This Book,” from Evidence, or “The Poet is Told to Fill Up More Pages” from Swan,  and of course the much-loved Percy poems, scattered through her books (she numbered them from the first, knowing there would be many).

My favorite road trip, though, was one to Syracuse, when we stopped impulsively on the way to visit Edna St. Vincent Millay’s house, where Mary had lived for a time. I took photos and wrote a short piece about it.  Those 6 or 7 hours were probably the best I ever spent in Mary’s company, when she really opened up about her youth, about meeting Molly, about discovering poetry.  But every hour spent with Mary was precious.

About the Author

Helene Atwan has been the director of Beacon Press since 1995.