Frost lasts all day on the grass. The daylight is lengthening into the afternoon and the sunsets have been long scarlet smeasr across the horizon, brightening up the world at the last seconds of the day. Frost on the side of the road and yet I’ve been riding my bicycle into town.
Today I got word that Mary Randlett an old family friend and artistic inspiration died at ninety four and so too, the poet Mary Oliver. Mary Randlett was a northwest photographer who lived next door to my childhood home and I’ve written about her and her kids before. She has many books and can be found in most northwest libraries. If you see black and white landscape photographs that capture wet beach sand patterns, or rhythmic patterns of clouds shredding through dark forests, whether knowingly or not the photographer was drawing inspiration from Mary Randlett.
Mary Oliver of course was known as a spiritual poet who used nature as her muse. More than almost any other modern poet her words were treasured by readers, kept on walls, above desks or next to beds as needed medicine when spirits sagged. I only met her once for a week long symposium here in Sitka. She struck me as a flinty New Englander, wearing her old sweatshirt and camp shoes with that certain flair, sweatshirt over a pressed cotton shirt. She still smoked unfiltered cigarettes back then and she didn’t suffer fools. She loved her, and her female partner’s privacy, and didn’t really want to be any movement’s poster child. Or at least that’s the way it seemed to me. I’m not claiming to know her well.
I think these two Marys had something in common. They grew up at a time when women were expected to be ladylike and they weren’t particularly suited to it. They were more comfortable out in the brush, with muddy dogs, flopping out ahead and a notebook or a camera in hand. They didn’t mind getting dirty and were happy eating whatever was in the refrigerator when they got home and getting down to work. They loved the “warm animal of their bodies” and other people’s opinions about art or religion could rile them or infuriate them, but opinions about their manners or appearance or their “lifestyle” I don’t think they gave a fig about. I knew Mary Randlett in the very early sixties remember. I was young, but even then when she would take me sailing and strip down to her underwear and halter top in the tiny boat and scream “come about sailor” as canvas would fly and rattle… even at seven years old, I knew she was a different kind of adult.
If you are interested you can find Mary Oliver’s New York Times eulogy
Which… I think most of her readers will find condescending if not down right snotty. Okay… that’s not fair… I found it condescending and snotty. They described Mary Oliver’s work as having “a pedagogical if not homilectic quality… and because of its brevity found its way to having a broad audience… frequently being quoted by clergy.” Then the writer refers to Bookscan numbers, indicting Oliver for the crime of selling a lot of books (along with Billy Collins)
By the way, I am not opposed to difficult, or obscure words, in either reviews or poetry but not when the difficult or obscure word is not the appropriate word to use. I don’t think anyone who was approaching Mary Oliver’s work with an open mind would describe her work as “pedagogical or homilectic” unless they were just plainly trying to act superior. Oliver loved to be direct and yes she came from a Christian background and she was making parallels between her experiences out in the woods with certain sacred or illuminating experiences that are referenced in homilies (the root of the word homilectic as I found when I looked it up.) But using the twenty dollar word particularly at a time when her readers are grieving and going to her obituary is insulting to the spirit of Oliver’s work.
And yes… okay I’m ranting now… Oliver did want to teach us something about the world, (“pedagogical”) and yes… it had a religious theme. But she did it so gently and generously. She knew who she was writing for, she wasn’t some flower-child celebrity, she wasn’t Jewel, for Christ sake, she had great skill and she communicated her passion for the world she saw and loved clearly. She gave her lessons generously, and you could take them or leave them and lots of people took them. She could have hidden behind her vocabulary and her technique but she didn’t and I think she was brave in that, AND I hate to see the New York Times take one last fucking piss on her (and more importantly on her readers) in her obituary.
Also… I like Jewel. I just think Mary Oliver was a way better poet, (Jewel a way better singer and guitar player) and I will stand on any Bar in Alaska and make that argument to all comers.
Okay… That’s it. I will probably regret that… but…I’m an Alaskan and I spend too much time alone.
I have not seen Mary Randletts obit. But I expect it will be more celebratory and more kind. At least I hope so.
I hope you all are well.
Cherry tree, winter
with frost covering the ground.
Our hearts are fragile.