The line wound through a small lobby in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, inching toward the table where a slight woman sat signing books of poetry. She smiled and acknowledged each person proffering a volume, her newest or one of their favorites. Though embarrassed at being a little star-struck, I, too, joined the line of admirers, clutching my own dog-eared collection of her earlier poems, a page opened for her autograph. Amid the friendly din of the room I could hear the odd word, admiring and appreciative, from readers and fans telling her what her poems meant to them.
The woman in line ahead of me appeared to have come to the reading alone that October night. She looked serious and self-contained, elsewhere perhaps in her thoughts. I remember her as slightly hunched over, unremarkable in her dress and demeanor, easily overlooked. She spoke to no one. When she looked up and noticed that the line had moved, she shuffled forward and then returned her gaze to the floor, the body advancing and the mind retreating with every few steps. When her turn came, she stepped up to the table and bent forward to say something to the poet, who was barely visible among the stack of books. And then the poet put down her pen and leaned forward, taking the woman’s hands, looking intently as she spoke. I stepped back, fearing I might overhear or intrude on this private moment. The woman spoke and the poet listened for what seemed a long time compared to the usual exchange over an autograph. As she moved away from the table, the woman appeared lighter, softer, as if a burden had been lifted. I have no idea what passed between them, but it was clear that the woman had been heard. It was a moment of exquisite, unforgettable kindness.
I was so absorbed by their encounter that I cannot remember what happened when the poet turned to me. I imagine that I stammered earnest gratitude as I presented my book. I know that she smiled then signed her name beneath the poem I had chosen, for now every time I read “The Summer Day” I see in a beautiful script in fine-point blue ink—“Mary Oliver.” When I recall her kindness to the woman ahead of me in line, I hear the closing words of her essay Upstream — “attention is the beginning of devotion.”
Mary Oliver grew up in Ohio in a household of people whose behavior she says she did not understand. She makes little mention of her mother and reveals her father to be a brooding, loveless force, abusive and neglectful. In her essay Staying Alive, she writes that one day he took her ice-skating and then forgot her and went home. Hours later someone found her wandering alone across the ice and took her “to the home of a kind, young woman” who phoned Oliver’s parents to say where she was. Her father eventually went back to get her. “He had simply, he said, forgotten that I existed.”
Oliver does not belabor her early biography in her writing. Only a handful of poems and essays obliquely reference her childhood pain. In a rare interview she remarked that hers “was a dark and broken house.” Oliver writes, instead, about the paths of her escape and salvation—books and nature. “I saved my own life by finding a place that wasn’t in that house.” She describes how she stuffed her knapsack with Emerson, Whitman, and Hawthorne as companions and co-conspirators against the dull studies of school and the hardness of home. Sometimes she skipped school to wander with Whitman: “Down by the creek, or in the wide pastures I could still find on the other side of the deep woods, I spent my time with my friend: my brother, my uncle, my best teacher.”
Other teachers would join her circle of friends – Keats, Wordsworth, Blake; later Rilke and Rumi. Their robust, sparkling language opened up worlds beyond her personal misery and set her course as a poet. “I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything—other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”
Watching the stranger with Oliver, I wondered if she carried a wearying sorrow. Perhaps she had come to share her own salvation story, to tell of poems that honor her heart. As the woman spoke, Oliver grasped her hands, looked into her face, and received her words with a kindly intensity. She attended to her warmly and generously, undistracted by the many people still waiting in line. “Real attention,” says Oliver, “needs empathy; attention without feeling is just a report.”
Bereft of a loving human gaze in her own early life, Oliver escaped to the woods and ponds which knew nothing of malice or neglect. “The great black oaks, she writes, recognized and responded to my presence, and to my mood. They began to offer, or I began to feel them offer, their serene greeting. It was like a quick change of temperature, a warm and comfortable flush, faint yet palpable…” The ferns and Dutchman’s-breeches growing beside the streams presented their delicate beauty as a gift, without expectation. The just-hatched geese wobbling in the pond’s shallows, unaware of the turtles eyeing their next meal, cautioned her about life’s awful and wondrous cycles. “What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?”
Oliver’s gift would become her poems. Her life would become the work of faithful attention.
Years of devotion to black oaks and hummingbirds, to cold ponds and summer clouds, to “brotherly” Whitman and scholarly Emerson, were present in the brief exchange with the woman in the museum lobby on a crisp fall night. By chance, I witnessed the moment and felt its grace. I could only ask myself: “what is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?”