I didn’t know Mary Oliver as well as I would have liked, though our poetry paths crossed a few times. We were introduced more than once, but it wasn’t until one evening in October 2012 that we were brought into close proximity. We were asked to read together at an immense performing arts center in Bethesda, Maryland. I was excited at the prospect of our two readerships convening in one place, but drama of a different kind was on the horizon. Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on coastal Maryland and due to strike later that night.
By her own account, writing wasn’t easy for Francine du Plessix Gray, who died last Sunday at the age of eighty-eight. As she told Regina Weinreich in her 1987 Art of Fiction interview, “I’ve always had a terrifically painful ambivalence of love and terror towards the act of writing.” But this doesn’t come through in her fearless books, such as the novel Lovers and Tyrants, a semiautobiographical account of her childhood, and Them, an unsparing look at her tyrannical parents. She was born in 1930 at the French embassy in Warsaw, but after her father died in 1940, Gray and her mother emigrated to America. Gray arrived in the country knowing not a lick of English; fourteen months later, she won the school spelling bee. Gray thrived in tense situations—she studied under the poet Charles Olson, whom she described as a “terrifying guru,” and before coming to fiction, she worked as the only woman on the night shift at United Press International, where she was forced to file stories “in a matter of minutes—sometimes a matter of seconds, since we were always trying to beat AP to the radio wire.” She went on to become a New Yorker staff writer and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and she taught at Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Brown. However, despite her success, when asked whether she’d like to be a writer in the next life, she replied: “Hell no. Have you ever met a writer who’d want the same karma a second time round? I doubt if one exists. We write out of revenge against reality, to dream and enter the lives of others. The next time round I’d like to be a great athlete with a political mission, like Billie Jean King or Arthur Ashe, or perhaps a lieder singer.” Here, we bring you two short memories from those who knew her:
I don’t know what to say about Mary Oliver’s death except that she was a great and beloved poet, and also my teacher and academic adviser, and that she was kind to me. She was absurdly generous. I first met her as if inside one of her poems: in a field of tall September grass, under a big bowl of stars just before dawn. It was my first week of college, and I hadn’t been able to sleep with excitement. I had thrown a Fair Isle sweater on over my flannel pajamas, slipped some hiking boots over fleece socks, and run out into the sleeping world. I was entering the field, by the reeds of the nearby pond, when I heard her coming along the path, a small, unknown figure walking with two dogs. Unassuming yet unmistakable. Perhaps I should not say that we “met” there, since we didn’t speak. We merely nodded as if it were normal to be up at that hour, passing in the dark. When I later introduced myself properly, I’d like to think that she remembered me as the girl from the field.
Perhaps she did. As she wrote in her essay “Wordsworth’s Mountain”:
But dawn—dawn is a gift. Much is revealed about a person by his or her passion, or indifference, to this opening of the door of day. No one who loves dawn, and is abroad to see it, could be a stranger to me.
As a teacher, Mary had almost no ego at all. In an act of generosity that I only now, as a “published writer,” can fully appreciate, she would bring into class her own failed poems—efforts at expressing some experience or sense or truth that would remain private and not be sent out into the world. She would talk about why they did not work. She was matter of fact about her failure. I remember one such poem she brought in, which she had called “The Pony Express.” Something about riders adrift in the landscape. She explained how she had tried but failed to express a vastness, and a loneliness, that were not coming through. Later, it would seem, she did rework this poem and publish it in her book Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (2010), under the title “The Riders.” It ends:
For decades, as his health declined, Tom Clark lived on a busy street in Berkeley in a house with many steep stairs. Crossing, haltingly, one of those streets, he was struck by a car and killed on August 17.
One of the last times I saw him, he made fun of himself for his frailty, for the way he had to pause while walking in the neighborhood, and pause even more when he tried to get to his front door. But though he could have, he refused to move. His surroundings—mainly an enormous trove of books, magazines, newspapers, and his own voluminous works and manuscripts—would have been too hard, and time-consuming, to go through alone. And aside from his wife Angelica, he trusted no one to help.
I asked Tom if he would be interested in being interviewed. We both knew we didn’t have forever to think about it (I’m eighty-one; he was seventy-seven). My pitch was: “You’re probably the least known person in this country to have written, and published, over forty books. There’s a great diversity in subject and mode in what you’ve written. And you keep up obsessively with the literary and political world around you. Got to be some wisdom to communicate, no?”
Tom was polite but obviously totally uninterested. He listened to me and, without responding, said he had to go lie down. Some time later, when he hadn’t returned, Angelica—whom I’d known since their first days together in Bolinas in the late sixties—came and told me he was asleep, and there was no telling when he’d get up. Read More
In the end, we’re left with the music: those luminous gospel recordings she made as a young teenager, still under her father’s wing; the halting, if promising, cocktail-blues recordings from the early sixties; those earth-shaking singles and albums she recorded for Atlantic between 1967 and 1973, when the world seemed to spin on her axis. The forays into disco and standards, the comebacks and movie cameos she wandered through in the last forty years, some off-kilter, some wonderful, were all completely beside the point. You get to part the Red Sea only once. Everything after is just … after.
When she finally broke through, in 1967, she was a powerhouse and seemed unstoppable. She made salvation sexy and sexuality holy; she made the radio a bigger, wilder, more inclusive place, and she made the whole world dance to her radio.
And it wasn’t just her voice. Her keyboard playing was formidable, and the piano intros to “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Don’t Play That Song” take the history of popular music and shake it by the scruff of the neck before turning it loose.
As a musician friend told me the morning her death was announced, “Her playing is thirty percent jazz, fifty percent gospel, and seventy-five percent just plain Aretha. And if those numbers don’t add up, that’s just the way it goes. Aretha was bigger than math.” Read More
I remember the songs that taught me the human voice is the most powerful instrument on earth. Some are immortal—Billie Holiday’s “I Must Have That Man,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows in April.” Some, like a-ha’s “Take On Me” and Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie,” had an outsize effect on me because they dominated the radio at the right time.
Aretha Franklin’s “Baby, Baby, Baby” hit me when I was a teenager. I’d bought I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You on CD because of “Respect.” I knew Aretha only from the hits that circulated on the oldies station—“Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Dr. Feelgood.” Great songs, but they hadn’t prepared me for this. Nothing could prepare you for “Baby, Baby, Baby.” She starts singing a little off mic, building volume with each “baby,” somehow sounding playful and utterly devastated at once. On the second verse, she blurs the syllables of “Baby, baby, baby,” slurring a little, sultry and sad, barely landing on the consonants. Then she cries out, “I’m bewildered, I’m lonely, and I’m loveless,” and you believe her even though you know you can’t believe a pop song. Later, as if frustrated by the failure of propositional statement to capture the enormity of her emotion, she strings it out: “Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby,” the first three barely recognizable as words. She sounds absolutely bewildered, lonely, loveless.
Lester Bangs wrote of Van Morrison that he was obsessed with how far he could “spread one note, word, sound, or picture. To capture one moment, be it a caress or a twitch.” Aretha Franklin taught me what this meant years before I heard “Madame George.” Later, I would admire her almost as much for her militancy as for her voice—she offered to post Angela Davis’s bail in 1976. “Angela Davis must go free,” she said. “Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up, and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace.” May she finally discover the peace that eludes us all, the peace she disturbed in all the right ways.
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator and The Second Sex, as well as a collection of essays, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music. His poem “Past One O’Clock” appears in the Summer issue.