In Her Own Way: Remembering Mary Oliver in Minnesota

Around 1988 -- I am trying to fix the date, so if anyone knows, please get in touch -- my friend John Krumberger and I made a pilgrimage from Minneapolis to Duluth to take part in a workshop with one of our favorite poets, Mary Oliver.  In those years Oliver was not the literary celebrity she became, though in American Primitive (1984) and Dream Work (1986), the former of which won her a Pulitzer, she had already achieved two of her greatest artistic triumphs.

To say that Oliver wasn't fashionable in those years is something of an understatement.  American poetry -- and especially poetry in the Twin Cities -- was enjoying one of its periodic romances with identity politics.  Oliver chose to keep her focus on the world, particularly the natural world, rather than herself.  She was foremost a nature poet, and therefore consigned to a literary ghetto reserved for those dealing with Lesser Matters in the eyes of the urban arbiters of culture.  And so, despite her honors, awards, and growing recognition of her excellence, Oliver had never, to my knowledge, brought her work to Twin Cities audiences.  It fell to that northern outpost Duluth to introduce her to Minnesota with a free workshop and reading at the historical Depot venue, a still-functioning train station, expanded to serve as a community cultural center.

Minnesota figured crucially in my familiarity with Oliver and her work in more ways than one.  In fact, it was in Minnesota poet Robert Bly's influential Sierra Club anthology News of the Universe (1980) that I'd first encountered Oliver.  Her poem in that volume, the wild, ecstatic "Sleeping in the Forest," put me on the trail of Twelve Moons (1978) the breakthrough collection in which it had first appeared.  I would guess that appearance in Bly's anthology served as entree to Oliver's work for many other readers as well.

I haven't been able to locate my notes on the Duluth workshop, whatever they amounted to.  I remember it was informal and low-key, attended by maybe two dozen or so.  Imagine, only two dozen people turning out for a free Mary Oliver workshop!  Oliver herself was matter-of-fact, unassuming.  Her reserve told us that, as an introvert, this wasn't her preferred way of spending time.  She was in her early 50s then, privately coming to terms with difficult personal issues Dream Work hinted at but stopped short of making explicit.  Her style was unfussily neat, out-doorsy.  I thought there was something of the fox in her countenance, a shy yet cunning elusiveness well-practiced in avoiding traps--not furtive or evasive exactly, but delicately wary and cautious, not willing to come close enough to be what one could call "personal."  She had dignity, gravitas, and did not wear her sense of humor close to the surface.  Some of the workshop attendees had brought poems to critique -- I can't remember whether John and I had thought to do that.  Oliver's responses were generous and helpful.  As men, John and I were greatly outnumbered by women in attendance, and I was thankful for Oliver's welcoming attitude toward us.  We weren't able to stay for the evening reading, but left Duluth well satisfied with our time in the company of one of our poetic heroes.

It took two decades for Mary Oliver to visit Minnesota again.  By 2007, Oliver was long established as America's premier nature poet, beloved by many and disparaged by some who weren't able to see past the "nature poet" label to the rich and complicated humanity of her poems.  Now Oliver commanded reading fees usually reserved for popular musicians and sports figures; Jim Lenfestey, heading the Plymouth Congregational Literary Witnesses reading series, had the chops and connections to finally entice Oliver to the Twin Cities, packing 1,400 into the overflowing sanctuary of Plymouth Congregational Church.

The next year Oliver returned for another triumphant reading at the State Theater in downtown Minneapolis.  Those were lucky times for us in the extended Twin Cities literary community, the rare thing happening not once, but twice.  It turned out to be a brief season that privileged us with our close-up view of the formerly distant author, for Mary Oliver never returned to our area.

I had the good fortune to almost literally rub elbows with her during the 2007 visit.  Arriving early at the church where the reading was being held, I first glimpsed Oliver in a small enclosed courtyard with a couple of other people that early-May evening.  She immediately struck me as older, smaller.  Well, she was past seventy now. . . . And she was smoking!  Mary Oliver smoking, demythologized in a single blow!  I saw she was smiling, chatting in a relaxed way with her companions.  It appeared as though the reserve of twenty years earlier had dropped away like some unwanted baggage jettisoned on the road.

The reading was as marvelous as anyone could have hoped, perhaps more so.  She had just published Thirst, poems written around the time of the death of her long-time partner Molly Malone Cook, challenging her regular audience with the introduction of conventional religious language, a stark departure from her usual vocabulary.  Thirst tested that audience who now, rightly or wrong, identified Oliver with her Unitarian-affiliated publisher, Beacon Press.  At least in her reading at Plymouth Congregational, Oliver went light on the new poems, perhaps had already begun to moderate the new concentration on her Episcopal faith.

In notes scrawled during her reading I seized on the still-palpable tension between religious doctrine and the spontaneous self-revelation that animates the vast body of her poetry:


Telling the truth but not willing ever

to give up the hope and desire for paradise.

An allegiance to life so great as to

keep her alive through the greatest grief.

She is a nun grown old in service

to the church of the world.

Funny around the edges of her poems,

but completely serious in them.

Someone very young inside her voice, eternally . . .

otherwise how could she ask all those questions?

Her favorite words are light and world.


Speculation ran that Mary wouldn't attend the reception afterward.  But surprise! she did.  Robert Bly, one of Mary's own heroes, was there and quickly engaged her in private conversation.  Mary's traveling companion and assistant, Daniel Franklin, confided to me that it was time for Mary to circulate a little more.  Shortly afterward I noticed an empty chair between Mary and Louise Erdrich at the kitchen table.  I didn't hesitate to seize the opportunity.

I don't remember a word that was said at that table, only the sheer, heady pleasure of finding myself seated within a hand's breadth of those two superb writers.  I think I wanted simply to size Mary up at close range, get a better sense of her as a person.  There had always existed in my perceptions a tension between who she was in her poems and who she appeared to be in life, a mysterious private person, latter-day female Thoreau, perhaps a recluse, versus the ordinary person who went shopping for groceries and paid the monthly bills.  My glimpse of her that evening reconciled this imagined tension; what I saw, or thought I saw, was a kind, introverted woman who, of necessity, for self-protection, had erected a somewhat forbidding wall of difficulty around her.  As I knew from Jim's efforts, one had to work hard -- and pay much -- to breach that wall.  But the woman inside the protective wall was a generous soul, essentially modest, down-to-earth, utterly genuine.

One moment I do remember was Mary's asking whether we'd mind if she smoked.  With an I-don't-do-this-for-just-anyone smile, our host Susan opened a nearby window and produced an ashtray to lay before Mary on the table.  Noticing Mary's slightly apologetic body language, I decided that joining her would be the gallant thing to do.  With some relief, I thought, she tipped the pack toward me, and we lit up.  By all accounts, Mary Oliver remained a smoker (a "bad" one, she told Krista Tippet in a 2015 interview) even after an episode of lung cancer.  

As much as Mary Oliver loved this world, there were clearly limits to how long and under what circumstances she wanted to stay in it.  In poems she'd made her life look more effortless than it was -- perhaps her cardinal sin in her critics' eyes -- all those moments of delight and revelation, and, unless you happened to be a careful, comprehensive reader, so little of her personal struggle in the lines.  But if you could read between the lines, it was there, clear enough.  Nowhere does that struggle come nearer to revealing its true nature than in Dream Work, in which she wrestles allusively with the childhood sexual abuse that cast its long shadow into her adulthood.  In the last poem in that book, she isn't speaking only of sunflowers when she remarks "the long work / of turning their lives / into a celebration / is not easy."  It's evident that, as the cover copy noted so truthfully, "Mary Oliver's willingness to be joyful continues" in part "by choice."  She chose to be joyful where many would or could not.  It couldn't have been easy.  That she was equipped by temperament to do so was a blessing.

As Mary and Daniel were leaving the party, she warmly hugged and kissed each of us who remained.

"Mary," I exclaimed in a foolish transport of affection, "I hope you live as long as Stanley Kunitz!"  The long-lived poet Kunitz, who had died at age one hundred the previous year, had been a great spiritual and emotional support to her as colleague, mentor, and neighbor in Provincetown.  

She replied, with an ambivalent smile suggesting that one hundred might in fact not be as desirable a goal as I imagined, "In my own way!"

"In whatever way you wish," I amended.

       *     *     *

       This is the poem I wrote about what happened afterward:

     Mary Oliver's Wine Glass

And tell me,
who do you know
in this world who could
not love Mary Oliver?

Not us, the four left
in the kitchen after
the poet -- who'd earlier
in the evening brought light

into fourteen hundred faces--
and her friend and the other
guests had gone, not us--
Jim, Susan, Krista, and

I -- who, picking up
dishes from the table
after midnight,
reverently as though

it were the Chalice,
passed the half-
inch of chardonnay
remaining in her wineglass

among us and imbibed
in true communion,
thrilled to touch lips
to the rim that had

touched so recently,
was almost still warm with
those lips that had kissed
so many ravishing poems.

copyright 2019 Thomas R. Smith

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