USED to be, if you telephoned the poet Mary Oliver, her partner Molly Cook would invariably answer. She'd ask you to hold on a moment, feign footsteps and return to the phone as Oliver, making no pretense at a different voice (editors across the country routinely played along). Cook was, for many years, Oliver's agent. Oliver, everyone understood, was a bit of a recluse. She needed nature and solitude to create her poems. "Writers must … take care of the sensibility that houses the possibility of poems," she wrote in "A Poetry Handbook." Cook, who died in 2005 of lung cancer, at 80, was the sociable one.
These days the phone goes pretty much unanswered. "From the complications of loving you," Oliver wrote in "A Pretty Song," "I think there is no end or return. / No answer, no coming out of it. / Which is the only way to love, isn't it?"
Molly Malone Cook was a photographer, but she was far more comfortable promoting the work of others (Edward Steichen, Berenice Abbott, Minor White, Harry Callahan and Ansel Adams, to name a few) in her Provincetown gallery than with the idea of making her own work public. Cook wouldn't put her photographs into a book, no matter how often people, including Oliver, asked. After she died, Oliver decided to do it. She went through thousands of negatives, many never printed, and boxes and boxes of photographs.
Oliver notes, in her accompanying text, that her own work often prompts readers and reviewers to comment on the keen quality of her attention. But watching Cook take her photographs and work in the darkroom, she writes, "and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter. Such openness and empathy M. had in abundance, and gave away freely."
The photographs Oliver has chosen reflect Cook's intuitive relationship with her subjects (even inanimate objects). The little girl on the stoop in New York City looks directly at the photographer, as does a kindly Robert Motherwell and a fierce, almost intimidating Walker Evans. Even though most of the photographs are dominated by a central person or object, there is a lot to look at in the margins, all part of the story. The stance of her subjects — reading a book, looking through a telescope — is always distinctive, creating the mood of the entire composition. The two photos of Oliver could have been taken only by someone who knew the subject well.
Several paragraphs on how the couple ate (simply, and often things that Oliver found on walks near their home, in Provincetown, Mass. — blackberries, bolete mushrooms, orach, clams, mussels) are a fond recollection of a time when there was not much money but plenty of love and creativity and determination. "In all our time together we were rarely separated," Oliver writes. "Three or four times I went away to teach, but usually M. would come with me, and we simply made our home, temporarily, somewhere else. And, while I always loved the stillness I found in the fields and the woods, our house was a different thing, and I loved that too. We were talkers — about our work, our pasts, our friends, our ideas ordinary and far-fetched. We would often wake before there was light in the sky and make coffee and let our minds rattle our tongues. We would end in exhaustion and elation. Not many nights or early mornings later, we would do the same. It was a forty-year conversation."
Cook taught the poet "to see," Oliver writes, "with searching compassion."
AND so, to look at these beautiful, artful, simple, photographs feels strangely intimate. As it does to meet the poet — still raw, two years after Cook's death — in their house overlooking Cape Cod Bay. On this fall day, the water a bright expanse of broken glass, she has agreed to be interviewed, only for the sake of the photographs. She sits curled on the sofa in a black sweat shirt and blue jeans, with a broken wrist from a tussle on the beach with Percy, her dog, and a bad case of bronchitis. "Wasn't it Emerson who said 'My life is for itself and not for a spectacle'?" she remarks. "I have a happy, full, good life because I hold it private."
Through the windows behind Oliver, one can see gannets diving into the water. A friend comes to take Percy for a walk. The house, which was once her office, is full of animals. Apologies for shabbiness. There's a huge Audubon lithograph of a barn owl in the hall. Upstairs are shells, necklaces and talismans. Over the bed are three of Cook's photos. In the corner, with the finest view of the water, is a bed for Percy. Oliver gets up early, at 5, and goes to bed early, except during the baseball season.
Oliver grew up in Ohio. She began writing poetry when she was 13. Writing and walking in the woods were both avenues of escape, but the poet doesn't believe in writing as therapy, or even, really, in talking about her past. "I grew up in a confused house; too much unwanted attention or none at all," she says, and adds, quoting Rainer Maria Rilke, " 'You must change your life.' This is another thing death teaches you. Everything vanishes; not a thing matters."
In 1953, when she was 17, Oliver paid her first visit to the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, in upstate New York; later, she would move in and help Millay's sister organize the poet's papers. Millay, who died in 1950, was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Oliver remembers this period with a combination of reverence for Millay and gratitude that she had the good sense to leave Millay's world before getting too mired in someone else's life and work. But it was there, in 1958, that she met Molly Cook. Six years later, the two women moved into the house by the bay. Cook had opened the VII Photographer's Studio in Provincetown in 1960 (before photography was fully respected as an art form) and shortly after that the East End Bookshop. In 1966, Cook hired an assistant, countercultural filmmaker John Waters, who later described her as "a wonderfully gruff woman who allowed her help to be rude to obnoxious tourist customers."
In the 1970s, Oliver and Cook worked as amanuenses for Norman Mailer, who summered for decades in Provincetown, in (Oliver notes with some amusement) the only brick house on Commercial Street. Mailer referred to his relationship with the two of them, she tells me, as "his best marriage." (For a recluse, Oliver is inordinately fond of the literary anecdote. About a third of our conversation is gleefully "off the record.")
The poet and the photographer were full of respect for each other's creativity. "I never showed my poems to anyone but Molly," Oliver says, sipping a glass of white wine. "She rarely said 'good.' She often said, 'You don't need that word,' or, 'Kill the adjectives.' Molly wrote a few poems herself" — Oliver smiles, a little wickedly — "but they were quite awful."
Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1983 collection, "American Primitive," and a National Book Award in 1992 for "New and Selected Poems." In her acceptance speech for the latter, she acknowledged Molly Cook as "the best reader anybody could ever have. She is the light of my life, and I'd like to thank her publicly."
Oliver is an ecstatic poet, in the tradition of Shelley, Keats, Hopkins, Yeats and Whitman. She believes in beauty and in the responsibility of the poet to elevate the soul. She thinks she has sometimes come perilously close to a kind of rapture in nature — the Stendhal Syndrome (most famously attributed to Van Gogh), in which the viewer achieves a kind of ecstasy, literally crazy over beauty. "The natural world is full of small and large miracles," she says. In "Blue Pastures," a collection of essays about writing, she referred to nature as an "antidote to confusion" and language as a "tool of consciousness."
"I'd rather write about polar bears than people," she tells me. "The natural world for me is safe and beautiful and leads to sublime thoughts. Beauty leads to virtue. Poetry speaks to that natural world."
She is also a poet of sounds (mutes, liquids and aspirates), playful with language, though she has written in "A Poetry Handbook," and elsewhere, about the formal structure of the poetic line.
IT is astonishing that she has been able to maintain such distance from her readers. Just weeks before our interview, the editorial page editor of the Boston Globe named Oliver one of the seven wonders of Massachusetts (along with MIT, the Big Dig and the Great Salt Marsh). It's a quiet cult but widespread and fervid: Her poems pop up at many of life's turning points, including death. Readers go to her for solace, regeneration and inspiration. Her name is passed between generations, with a knowing look. After a few hours in her quiet, exuberant presence, one feels as though the raw sunlight in the room, the brightness of the water, the white wood and flashing wings outside the window are bleaching unimportant details from the day.
"A consonant cannot be perfectly uttered till joined to a vowel," Oliver declaimed in "A Poetry Handbook." The last photographs in "Our World" are of Oliver, lean in the arms and ankles but with a lushness about the mouth. There's an endless youthfulness in them — something summery and wind-swept. "A Pretty Song" continues:
This isn't a playground, this is
earth, our heaven, for a while.
Therefore I have given precedence
to all my sudden, sullen, dark moods
that hold you in the center of my world.
And I say to my body: grow thinner still.
And I say to my fingers, type me a pretty song.
And I say to my heart: rave on. *