You can spot the book collectors at an author’s reading. They’re the ones carrying not just one or two but a stack of books to be signed. At last night’s poetry reading by Mary Oliver in Cleveland, my friend LS and I were the only two with those stacks, and Ms. Oliver’s efficient handler didn’t appreciate them. When I approached the signing table, she grimaced and barked a firm NO at the sight of my handful and instructed “only two.” (I handed over three.) She wouldn’t allow me to take a photo, either, so what you see here is Mary Oliver in a 2008 magazine article taped to my office bookshelf.
Such was the tone for this event, a show handled well. It took place in downtown Cleveland’s Ohio Theatre Playhouse Square. I must admit, I was surprised to see such a crowd for a poetry reading; however, it was Mary Oliver, a very accessible poet who through the ages has spoken to many about life’s meaning and beauty, asking urgent questions in her poems, such as, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” Indeed, the young man introducing Ms. Oliver described her work as accessible, poignant and transformational, teaching us to slow down and make decisions with greater care.
I also was surprised by Mary Oliver’s humor. This was not the inspirational Mary Oliver whose poems I’d read all these years, a humble poet who never gave interviews, letting her work stand for whatever needed to be said. This was not the contemplative poet who through her poems speaks thoughtfully, reverentially, spiritually about our connection to nature, lifting our weaknesses into light. Instead, Mary Oliver at the podium was a delightful, funny woman entertaining us. She was downright jocular. Her salty, endearing, unorganized self kept the crowd laughing ,and then she’d read a poem and they’d sigh. Or maybe they’d laugh again.
Yes, it was all very entertaining, but who is Mary Oliver? Why is she, in her 70s, on the road and funny at the podium? All that humor cadenced between the reading of random poems unsettled me. I wanted to experience her passion. I wanted to hear her story. She told little about herself that would provide context for her poems, such as growing up in Maple Heights, Ohio, or living her adult years by the ocean in Provincetown, Mass.
During the question and answer period — questions asked about her writing and life — she remarked, “Doesn’t anyone have funny questions?” And so we got them. “Do you have a sweet tooth? What do you wear on your feet during your strolls?” When asked what books she read as a child, she quipped, “I’m still a child.” Everyone loved that. It allowed her then to answer, “Harry Potter.” Everyone loved that, too, and while I laughed right along, I yearned for the real answer.
“What does it mean that the world is beautiful?” someone asked. Ms. Oliver replied loosely, saying, essentially,that it means everything. I just wish the in-depth answer had been more present last night, elaborate and giving as I have known that answer to be in her books on my bookshelf, three of them now signed.