Mary Oliver


1935 – 2019

Late in the afternoon on the day Mary Oliver died, my dog Hannah and I went for our usual walk along Lake Michigan heading south from Belmont Harbor. It was a characteristically overcast January day with a firm wind coming down the long lake from the North. There were waves, but not the terrible clatter that comes from the fierce North wind called, in these precincts, “The Hawk”. As we reached the breakwater a line of geese perhaps 50 in number came into view paddling, heading south. A long solitary line. I had noticed this phenomenon before, an impossible line of geese moving slowly, each following the other. But on this day of course, with the combination of Mary Oliver’s death and her constant admonition to notice the world and pay attention, the geese carried the feeling of a funeral procession. It felt exactly right. They were taking the time, as they paddled, to ponder her absence. They knew they could be thrumming through space, but this quiet bobbing, this insistent, slow progress paid an homage suited to Oliver’s thrilling determination.

I must have encountered her first in the New Yorker in the early 1980s which led to buying her book American Primitive, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. I think I own every book since. Her poems, deceptively simple, were filled with an open engagement and wonder. But she was also constantly aware of loss. How could she not be, paying such careful attention to the shifts and buckling of the natural world and the animals (she was a great lover of dogs) that made their way within it. She and her partner, the great photographer Molly Malone Cook, lived over 40 years together, principally in Provincetown, MA, which afforded Oliver her daily walks through woods and beach, watching, listening, writing, providing worthiness to all she saw, and never losing her deep sense of gratitude with life’s engagement.

Over all these years of religiously reading her, I have shared her work repeatedly with friends, actors, acquaintances. Many already knew her, some were introduced, most were struck by her fierce attention coupled with deep, unapologetic feeling, and became life-long acolytes. I heard from several of these friends on the day she died. They felt the potency of her loss and the need to connect. One of them, a young writer in Houston, included a favorite poem of hers from Oliver’s book Thirst (a book she values so much she carries her tattered copy always in her purse) which I want to share because it is less well known than some, but emblematic of the mixture of light, dark, and joy that makes Oliver so beloved.

Mozart, for Example

All the quick notes
Mozart didn’t have time to use
before he entered the cloud-boat

are falling now from the beaks
of the finches
that have gathered from the joyous summer

into the hard winter
and, like Mozart, they speak of nothing
but light and delight,

though it is true, the heavy blades of the world
are still pounding underneath.
And this is what you can do too, maybe,

if you live simply and with a lyrical heart
in the cumbered neighborhoods or even,
as Mozart sometimes managed to, in a palace,

offering tune after tune after tune,
making some hard-hearted prince
prudent and kind, just by being happy.

As in many of her poems there is an admonition here to be unafraid of engagement, of living simply and embracing lyricism. It is never a dare, but there is something seething just below the quiet surface that asks, “please don’t miss this chance at life!”. Oliver is sometimes dismissed in certain circles as being too slight, too dreamy, too, well, popular. This nay-saying comes from the world of the Discontent. Those that share the belief that art must come from the Dark. Mary Oliver was able to disregard such criticism, and live and observe the world and the heart with equal acuity, and her response was a writing life filled with love and appreciation and deep pleasure. And many, many of her books in libraries, on bookshelves, and in purses.

And, of course, loss. Molly Cook died in 2005 and Oliver found a way through the loss and the profound grief into a last flowering of books. In a way, she has been preparing her readers for her absence for many years. Her poems and her essays frequently remind us that it is the quality of our lives that must carry more weight than the quantity, and that loss and grief are an essential part of life’s fullness contributing essentially to our deepest selves.

One of my favorite books of hers is the essay collection Blue Pastures, published in 1995. If I had to pick one non-poem to remember Mary Oliver by it is the essay “Staying Alive”. Here is the way it ends:
“And now my old dog is dead, and another I had after him, and my parents are dead, and that first world, that old house, is sold and lost, and the books I gathered there lost, or sold—but more books bought, and in another place, board by board and stone by stone, like a house, a true life built, and all because I was steadfast about one or two things: loving foxes, and poems, the blank piece of paper, and my own energy—and mostly the shimmering shoulders of the world that shrug carelessly over the fate of any individual that they may, the better, keep the Niles and the Amazons flowing.
And that I did not give to anyone the responsibility for my life. I made it. And can do what I want to with it. Live it. Give it back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes.”



Best Books of 2018

James’ top five picks for fiction and nonfiction of 2018:


The Overstory   My favorite book of the year! Richard Powers has long had a reputation as being a brilliant but perhaps over-geeky writer. A writer seduced by fascinating detail over richness of character. No more. This is a thrilling book about trees and environmentalism. In the first section, Roots, he introduces, one by one, nine characters whose lives will be drawn to, and entwined by, the survival of ancient forests. Each of the nine is fascinating and carries us deeper into Powers’s obsession with why trees must survive. He gathers all the current research about forests, but never at the expense of learning more about these nine disparate and compelling human beings. This is one of the rare books that changes the way you notice the world. Read it. Give it to a friend to read. Pass it on. Listen.

Unsheltered   Barbara Kingsolver sets her new bifurcated novel on the same corner of a street in Vineland, New Jersey a century and a half apart. In each time frame the characters feel a huge shift in their worlds and struggle to make sense of it and find a new shape for their lives. One group is living in 2016 as their American dream of feeling safe after working hard for years slowly unravels with job failings and family tensions. Their counterparts, just after the Civil War, get swept up in the fears that the ideas of science and Darwin in particular will unravel the religious dogma that has held America together. The 19th century characters are mostly real people, including an amateur scientist named Mary Trent who shared her discoveries with Darwin through correspondence. Like Richard Powers Kingsolver has found a compelling way to explore a political current in American life. This is a deeply moving book. The twin narratives are filled with struggle, but suffused with stubborn hope.

Asymmetry   Lisa Halliday’s wonderful, subtle and complex debut novel is in three parts. In the first a 25 year old assistant editor at a publishing house meets a 70-year-old famous writer on a park bench in 2002. They begin what turns into a 3 year relationship. She aspires to be a writer but has the usual self-doubts of someone at life’s beginning. In a bit over a hundred pages Halliday skillfully traces the ways each matters to the other, and slowly the young woman focuses her dream of “a life of seeing, really seeing the world, and having something novel to say about the view.” The second section transports us to London in 2008 and a young Kurdish-American man detained in customs at Heathrow. Again, over a bit more than a hundred pages we learn his back and present story and his own strivings to engage the world and make a difference to it. In a brief coda many of the books themes coalesce subtly during a “Desert Island Discs” interview with the famous writer in 2011. It is a dazzling debut with the added frisson of knowing that Halliday when she was 25 had a three year romance with Philip Roth. The writer’s voice is clearly Roth, and the book takes on an added poignancy due to Roth’s death last May.

The Silence of the Girls   Pat Barker became rightfully famous with her astonishing Regeneration Trilogy set during World War I. In her new book she returns to war. Here she takes The Iliad, a story of fierce men at war and their mostly silent women captives, and makes it mesmerizing again by bringing us the voices of those women. Blunt, brutal, harrowing, tender, it is a remarkable feat of re-invention. It is fascinating and humbling to “hear” again the well established events of the classic text filtered through the eyes of Briseis, a Trojan woman-prize taken from Achilles by Agamemnon, which caused Achilles to stop fighting. This unforgettable novel is a stark reminder of how many stories of war have silenced women’s voices. After this book we must all insist: Never Again!

The Great Believers   Rebecca Makkai was short-listed for the National Book Award, and richly deserved it. Her story centers on the mid-1980s Gay community in Chicago as it deals with the initial onslaught of the AIDS crisis. This is the period when gay men were dying at alarming rates, and long before the drug cocktails were developed that have taken away the sentence of death that all received early on if infected. A second strand of the story takes place in France in 2015 where Fiona, the younger sister of one of the men who died in the 1980s, and close friend to several other gay men then, seeks to re-connect with her estranged daughter. Makkai’s book is tender, harrowing, funny, meticulously researched and filled with love. The characters are complex and grant immediate access to the terrors and tenderness of that time. The Paris segments remind us of how far the shadows of any deep loss in our lives reach.

And tied for sixth—

Transcription   Kate Atkinson’s new novel is anchored by one of her typically smart, funny and determined women. Juliet Armstrong is her real name, but because much of the book tells of her time working for MI5 in World War II, she is known by a few names. Typical of Atkinson the story jumps back and forth in time, mostly between the war years and 1950. This is a spy novel within a coming-of-age novel, suffused with wit and many literate references that enrich the pleasure of getting lost in its plot. Here is a little taste of Atkinson’s perfect pitch. “Godfrey raised his hat to her. She raised her hand in silent reply. He lifted his cane in acknowledgement. Prospero’s staff, Juliet thought. Godfrey, the Magus. The Master of Ceremonies. As if at a sign, the mist closed around him once more and he disappeared.”

Love Is Blind   Like Kate Atkinson, William Boyd can create such a vivid sense of place and time and populate those settings with fascinating character studies, that his books begin to feel like historical memoirs. In his new book his piano-tuning(!) protagonist, Brodie Moncur (a Scot, like Boyd) moves all over Europe between 1894 and 1906. Each place he alights is granted remarkable verisimilitude by Boyd who simultaneously takes us deeper and deeper into Brodie’s complicated life. Boyd is a huge admirer of Chekhov and the book is peopled by characters who could live in Chekhov’s stories. Brodie’s love interest (any more info would spoil things) has a small dog who follows her everywhere. There is a scene on a pier in Nice when Brodie, recovering from tuberculosis, engages a Russian doctor who is also recovering, and talks about the woman and the dog. The doctor asks many quiet questions and it suddenly dawns on you (it is never spoken) that it is Chekhov himself, gathering the events and feelings that will become one of his masterpieces, “The Lady With the Lapdog”. It is one of those moments in a very good book that grants the deepest sort of pleasure.


Fascism   Madeleine Albright, former Ambassador to the UN, former Secretary of State, and advisor to Presidents, has written an essential primer about Fascism, the political movement that became the scourge of the 20th century, and has spilled over into the 21st. When she was a young girl in Czechoslovakia her father was a diplomat and she frequently traveled with him and observed his activities. She has spent her entire life witnessing and participating in the wider world seeking to make it wiser, more connected and humane. She has more than earned the right to offer this sharp shot across the bow of all thinking adults. Her style is straightforward because she trusts the potency of her examples. She knows some of the people personally. This is an essential book for our uncomfortable times.

Tyrant   This is a hugely enjoyable book despite being a ferocious warning about our current political peril. The nimble Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World, deftly uses examples from Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III, King Lear, Macbeth and Winter’s Tale among others as sharp studies in tyranny, one of Shakespeare’s and his audiences’ obsessions. Greenblatt’s scholarship fuels his passions, the parallels he draws are sobering, and the book a call to action. Here is a taste. “Shakespeare’s Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant already sketched in the Henry VI trilogy: the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting he can do whatever he chooses.” A must read for Shakespeare fans and political junkies.

The Cost of Living    Deborah Levy, whose recent novels, Swimming Home and Hot Milk were each short-listed for the Booker Prize, has written her second memoir. It is superb. It begins with the dissolution of her lengthy marriage, and becomes a primer on re-invention. Through finding time and a new location to accomplish her writing, and keeping her teen-aged daughters feeling whole, Levy discovers a successful new way of engaging the world. Always an elegant and blunt observer of interior motives in her fiction, she doesn’t spare herself in her tough but love-filled journey. The book is a wonderfully sly primer on writing and influences. She has become a crucial voice.

Call Them by Their True Names   This  collection of recent essays by Rebecca Solnit has won the 2018 Kirkus Prize, and was long-listed for the National Book Award. Many of the essays focus on Solnit’s continuing passionate concerns about ecology, race, and financial inequality, but the deepest focus is on language, speaking truthfully and reasonably so progress can be made. She worries our country is in a linguistic crisis where truth and clarity have been disastrously devalued. But as always in her writing and her heart, Solnit believes in hope. In the book’s final essay, “In Praise of Indirect Consequences” she offers many historical examples of protest and demonstrations that seemed to be failures at the time but that silently opened doors that many walked through, sometimes decades later. In that essay she reminds us all that “Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written.”

The Art of the Wasted Day   This delicious book is nearly impossible to capture descriptively. It is memoir, it is travelogue, it is biography. It includes many connections to the essays of Montaigne, writing of Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, Colette, Emily Dickinson, Freud and the monk-geneticist Gregor Mendel, among many others. Woven through the book is her late husband of 40 years, Terrance Williams. It is a book about solitude, about grief, about noticing what is around you: taking the time to really notice what you encounter, “because the detail is divine, if you caress it into life, the world lost or ignored, the world ruined or devalued, comes to life.” The book is in three sections, each fascinating, wry, moving, and illuminating the argument for unstructured time in your life. The third section, entitled, “To Stay” is about a short boat trip down the Mississippi (from St Paul to Prairie du Chien) she took with Terrence on their beat-up Chris Craft. Well, it is about many, many things, but we journey lazily by boat. I could read those fifty pages once a month the rest of my life to smile, to cry, to learn, to notice something new each time.

And tied for sixth—

Leadership in Turbulent Times and American Dialogue   Doris Kearns Goodwin and Joseph J. Ellis, two of our most eminent historians (a National Book Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, the Lincoln Prize, and a Carnegie Medal between them) have written books with similar structures: using the past as a way to explore our present. In Leadership, Goodwin takes four Presidents, Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson and examines a moment in their lives as President when a particular sort of leadership rose up in each. Ellis structures his narrative around four seminal ideas in the formation of the country, race, equality, law and foreign engagement. He then choses a leader for each of the ideas. Those four are: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and George Washington. After each section he has a “Now” section where he examines our present circumstances. Whatever your politics, these are important books to remind us where we have been, where we are, and, perhaps, how we might want to move forward. To me the largest quiet lesson is the reminder of why history and knowledge of the county matters if you are aspiring to lead. History, perspective, ideas, discussion, engaged, thoughtful argument, facts. If we are to yearn for a collective dream of an inclusive American life, these books can help us begin.

Robert Macfarlane…

Directing a play “up the hill”  at APT presents many challenges rarely encountered in most other theaters, because, well, most of them have ceilings. Indoor theaters control the environment for everyone, and directors can follow the stage directions the writer creates so that the play begins in whatever way the writer or director (or both) chooses. This is true because you can have a blackout, the actors can enter in the dark, and then be “discovered” when the lights come up. What I just described might be possible the last weekend of the outdoor season in early October, but otherwise all of us who direct up there have to invent ways to get the actors on stage while the audience watches, just so the play can begin!

In 2013 I was given the gift of directing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard.  Here is Stoppard’s initial stage direction—

Two Elizabethans passing the time in a place without any visible character.

They are well dressed–hats, cloaks, sticks and all.
           Each of them has a large leather money bag.
           Guildenstern’s bag is nearly empty.
           Rosencrantz’s bag is nearly full.
           The reason being: they are betting on the toss of a coin, in the following
           Guildenstern takes a coin out of his bag, spins it, letting it fall. Rosencrantz
           studies it, announces it as “heads” (as it happens) and puts it into his own bag.
           Then they repeat the process. They have apparently been doing this for
           (I added those italics!)

So what the audience discovers, if the play is done inside, are these two chaps sitting on the ground, or somewhere, flipping coins and it is immediately apparent via posture, etc that they have been “doing this for some time”. Not outdoors at APT. Flipping coins while coming on stage seemed both unnerving to corral the coins and somewhat odd behavior for people in the course of traveling. It took me a long time to sort out, but I finally hit on a controllable action which might be funny (a plus), and which had the added benefit of beginning a play out there with a look to the stage that I could not remember any production using (another plus).

As the audience entered the stage was bare and the trap midstage was open. So what the audience stared at for minutes was a bare stage with a hole in the middle. After the pre-show announcement there was a brief moment when nothing happened, and then from under the stage a coin rose into the air through the open trap and landed on the stage. Then Rosencrantz (Ryan Imhoff) came up from the pit walked to the coin looked down at it, smiled, and turned back and said into the pit, “Heads,” picked the coin up and put it in his coin purse. Laugh achieved. The action is repeated, and then Guildenstern (Steve Haggard) clambers from the pit, and the play, finally(!), begins in earnest.

The reason all of the above was shared with you was to point out a book by Robert Macfarlane that I had read about and ordered so that I could provide the actors with a rational sense of “where in the world they were” when they were beneath the stage floor. I know I simply could have said, “You are under the stage because I can’t think of anywhere else you can be to start this damn play outdoors!” But that did not seem to be fair to Steve and Ryan and I wanted them grounded, I wanted them to know they were somewhere.

Robert Macfarlane has just created an astonishing book with his artist friend, Jackie Morris, called The Lost Words. I wrote about it in last week’s newsletter. The book I used to ground Steve and Ryan was his sweet, tiny book, Holloway.  Here is how Macfarlane reveals what a holloway is:

“Holloway – the hollow way. A sunken path, a deep & shady lane. A route that
centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll & rain-run have harrowed into the land.
A track worn down by the traffic of ages & the fretting of water, and in places
reduced sixteen or eighteen feet beneath the levels of the field.

They are landmarks that speak of habit rather than suddenness. Like creases
in the hand, or the wear on the stone sill of a doorstep or stair, they are the re-
sult of repeated human actions. Their age chastens without crushing. They
relate to other old paths & tracks in the landscape – ways that still connect
place to place & person to person.”

Macfarlane, like Stoppard, loves language. The sounds of words in the ear. The pair of them make me giddy. Oh, did the knowledge of being in a holloway help the actors to launch themselves into the play? I will never know. Steve and Ryan nodded enthusiastically, read the re-prints avidly and seemed content with the new knowledge, but when they were under the stage with the play about to begin I suspect they were thinking, “we are under here because we can’t think of any other way to start this damn play outdoors!”