Beloved American poet Mary Oliver in 1964, taken by her partner Molly Malone Cook.
American Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award winning poet Mary Oliver died from lymphoma at her Florida home on January 17, 2019. She was 83.
Oliver was America’s best-selling poet whose works are well known as memes on Pinterest and Instagram. Her fans include celebrities such as Oprah, Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Oliver published over 15 essay and poetry collections. Her first collection, No Voyage and Other Poems, was published in 1963 when she was 28. She won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her fifth collection, American Primitive and won the National Book Award in 1992 for New and Selected Poems. Unfortunately, her work met with sexist scorn from male literary critics.
“...perhaps because she writes about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and, worst of all, God—she has not been taken seriously by most poetry critics. None of her books has received a full-length review in the Times,” wrote Ruth Franklin in a New Yorker piece titled "What Mary Oliver's Critics Don't Understand."
One of Oliver's best known works is the 1992 poem The Summer Day. In the final and very famous couplet she asks: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"
The reclusive poet was interviewed by Maria Shriver in O Magazine in 2011, and asked what she had done with her own wild and precious life.
"What I have done is learn to love and learn to be loved. That didn't come easy. And I learned to consider my life an amazing gift. Those are the things," she replied.
Oliver spent more than 40 years in a relationship with Molly Malone Cook, who was a photographer, gallery owner and also worked as Oliver’s literary agent. The couple met in 1959 and lived together in Province-town, Massachusetts, where it was more acceptable than in other areas of the USA to be gay.
Cook died from cancer in 2005 at the age of 80 and Oliver spent the next year going through Cook’s old photos and undeveloped negatives. She paired 49 of them plus pieces from Cook’s journals with her own poetry and prose and released them in the book Our World.
In the book, Oliver memorialised the couple's first encounter at a friend's kitchen table in 1959 when Oliver was twenty-four and Cook thirty-four.
“I took one look and fell, hook and tumble. M. took one look at me, and put on her dark glasses, along with an obvious dose of reserve. She denied this to her dying day, but it was true.
Isn’t it wonderful the way the world holds both the deeply serious, and the unexpectedly mirthful?"
It turned out that the women lived across the street from each other in New York, so they started to spend small amounts of time together and from there a great love affair bloomed.
Molly Malone Cook, left and Mary Oliver at the couple’s home in Provincetown, Massachusetts
In Brainpickings, Maria Popova describes Our World as “Part memoir, part deeply moving eulogy to a departed soul mate, part celebration of their love for one another through their individual creative loves.”
“Embraced in Oliver’s poetry and prose, Cook’s photographs reveal the intimate thread that brought these two extraordinary women together — a shared sense of deep aliveness and attention to the world, a devotion to making life’s invisibles visible, and above all a profound kindness to everything that exists, within and without.”
The year after Cook died, Oliver also released Thirst: Poems, a collection of 43 new poems. Her publisher's blurb says of Oliver: "Grappling with grief at the death of her beloved partner of over forty years, she strives to experience sorrow as a path to spiritual progress, grief as part of loving and not its end."
That time I thought I could not go any closer to grief without dying
I went closer, and I did not die. Surely God had his hand in this,
as well as friends. Still, I was bent, and my laughter, as the poet said,
was nowhere to be found. Then said my friend Daniel, (brave even among lions), “It’s not the weight you carry
but how you carry it – books, bricks, grief – it’s all in the way you embrace it, balance it, carry it
when you cannot, and would not, put it down.” So I went practicing. Have you noticed?
Have you heard the laughter that comes, now and again, out of my startled mouth?
How I linger to admire, admire, admire the things of this world that are kind, and maybe
also troubled – roses in the wind, the sea geese on the steep waves, a love to which there is no reply?
I Did Think, Let’s Go About This Slowly
I did think, let’s go about this slowly. This is important. This should take some really deep thought. We should take small thoughtful steps. But, bless us, we didn’t.
All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden I mean that for more than thirty years she had not whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was in the house, what stranger? I was upstairs reading, and she was downstairs. As from the throat of a wild and cheerful bird, not caught but visiting, the sounds war- bled and slid and doubled back and larked and soared.
Finally I said, Is that you? Is that you whistling? Yes, she said. I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled through the house, whistling.
I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and ankle.
Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too. And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with for thirty years?
This clear, dark, lovely whistler?
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?