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Provincetown’s Poet

Reflecting on Mary Oliver

by Rebecca M. Alvin

The echoes of Mary Oliver’s footsteps still resonate in this town, five years after she left for Florida, and three months after she passed away. While many come to Provincetown for decadent Fourth of July parties, the Carnival parade, or the chance to be out and free and experience the joy of a small town without the small-mindedness, Cape Cod is a place that is very much about the natural world. Oliver understood that this external landscape is as intrinsic to our identities as is our internal psychology. Many an inspiration has been sparked in visitors who came here for fun and sun but along the way spotted a seal swimming next to them in the ocean, heard the celebratory midnight yelping of wild coyotes, or felt the ocean air blow against their skin on a quiet morning.

Though she was a writer before she came here more than 50 years ago, and she was still writing when she moved to Florida in 2014, Oliver’s poetry is as connected to Provincetown as the sand is to the sea. From the farthest eastern end of Commercial Street to Blackwater Pond in Beech Forest and out to Race Point, the imagery in Oliver’s poetry is the imagery in our backyards. While her work was admired around the world, there is a certain specificity, a familiarity in those images she captured that feels uniquely personal here. For poet and author Kelle Groom, who grew up on Cape Cod, Oliver’s writing has been a lifeline, helping her reconnect with the Cape even after she’d been away for some time. Her family moved around a lot, but her grandmother’s place in Yarmouth was one she returned to regularly. Groom discovered Mary Oliver while she was living in Florida and a relative sent her a book of her poetry. What struck her about it was that it “felt like home.” Throughout her life, whenever she would return to the Cape after being away, she says she had a hard time connecting with people, but “the thing that never changed for me about the Cape was the landscape,” which Oliver captured so well in her work.

Likewise, Kate Wallace Rogers, a poet and yoga teacher who incorporates Oliver’s poetry into the meditation portion of her classes, also grew up spending summers on the Cape. Rogers was lucky enough to hear Oliver read in Wellfleet some years back, and the experience left a lasting mark on her.
“It was so incredible, and it changed my life,” she recalls. “I remember very vividly, it really was a turning point in my life. There’s something about how she spoke to me that hit on a really visceral level, as though she was talking only to me, and I know others feel that, too.”

The connection for writers is particularly deep because Oliver’s practice of paying quiet attention to the world around her is perhaps the most essential task of the writer. Her writing has been classified as nature writing, but to do so is to miss important threads within the work.

Playwright Myra Slotnick, for whom Oliver was a potent influence when she decided to pursue her writing full-time, says these poems that seem on the surface to be about nature also strike at the very core of the human condition. “In her writing there was some of the most profound revelations about human nature and how we either deprive ourselves or nurture ourselves, and how we survive in this world. I mean those are huge questions,” she says.

But there is a symbiosis. We feel connected to her here, but she felt as deeply connected to this town. According to Oliver’s biographer Lindsay Whalen, who has been working on her authorized biography since 2016, “the relationship to the town was really important to her. It was a really wonderful place to be a working artist… because of the regular people in town and the way in which art kind of flows through everyone’s life there, especially in the early years, and that made it a very natural home for her.”

While through her writing she contemplated the big questions, she was often seen doing regular, everyday things in Provincetown. “When I saw her she was doing townie things. She was, you know, walking her dog and picking up oysters and clams that she would find,” says Slotnick. She recalls one particular day when Oliver, sleeves and pant legs rolled up, was walking on the beach. “She had a fish the size of her arm, and she was just walking it home, saying one of the fishermen decided he didn’t need this one, and that it was going to be her dinner.”

There was a spiritual sense to her, even as she went about these very ordinary tasks. As Whalen explains, Oliver had a very “individual notion of spirituality,” and even though in the heat of summer, with scantily clad revelers downtown, Provincetown can seem far from spiritual, it really isn’t. Whalen explains, “Even if Provincetown is not thought of as an overtly religious or spiritual place, I think that people tend to be called there for some reason. I mean, unless you’re born there, there’s a reason why you’re going to the edge of the United States.”

Oliver’s reverence for the natural world was matched by her reverence for the creative process.

“She was a great example [for writers],” says Rogers. “She was incredilby humble and focused on what her passion was; everything else was a little disturbance in her poetic life.”
Grooms concurs: “What she taught me from the start is this: to pay attention, that you just stop and pay attention.”

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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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