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A time for us

Our World Mary Oliver, photographs by Molly Malone Cook Beacon Press: 88 pp. $24.95

January 06, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

USED to be, if you telephoned the poet Mary Oliver, her partner Molly Cook would invariably answer. She'd ask you to hold on a moment, feign footsteps and return to the phone as Oliver, making no pretense at a different voice (editors across the country routinely played along). Cook was, for many years, Oliver's agent. Oliver, everyone understood, was a bit of a recluse. She needed nature and solitude to create her poems. "Writers must . . . take care of the sensibility that houses the possibility of poems," she wrote in "A Poetry Handbook." Cook, who died in 2005 of lung cancer, at 80, was the sociable one.

These days the phone goes pretty much unanswered. "From the complications of loving you," Oliver wrote in "A Pretty Song," "I think there is no end or return. / No answer, no coming out of it. / Which is the only way to love, isn't it?"

Molly Malone Cook was a photographer, but she was far more comfortable promoting the work of others (Edward Steichen, Berenice Abbott, Minor White, Harry Callahan and Ansel Adams, to name a few) in her Provincetown gallery than with the idea of making her own work public. Cook wouldn't put her photographs into a book, no matter how often people, including Oliver, asked. After she died, Oliver decided to do it. She went through thousands of negatives, many never printed, and boxes and boxes of photographs.

Oliver notes, in her accompanying text, that her own work often prompts readers and reviewers to comment on the keen quality of her attention. But watching Cook take her photographs and work in the darkroom, she writes, "and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness -- an empathy -- was necessary if the attention was to matter. Such openness and empathy M. had in abundance, and gave away freely."

The photographs Oliver has chosen reflect Cook's intuitive relationship with her subjects (even inanimate objects). The little girl on the stoop in New York City looks directly at the photographer, as does a kindly Robert Motherwell and a fierce, almost intimidating Walker Evans. Even though most of the photographs are dominated by a central person or object, there is a lot to look at in the margins, all part of the story. The stance of her subjects -- reading a book, looking through a telescope -- is always distinctive, creating the mood of the entire composition. The two photos of Oliver could have been taken only by someone who knew the subject well.

Several paragraphs on how the couple ate (simply, and often things that Oliver found on walks near their home, in Provincetown, Mass. -- blackberries, bolete mushrooms, orach, clams, mussels) are a fond recollection of a time when there was not much money but plenty of love and creativity and determination. "In all our time together we were rarely separated," Oliver writes. "Three or four times I went away to teach, but usually M. would come with me, and we simply made our home, temporarily, somewhere else. And, while I always loved the stillness I found in the fields and the woods, our house was a different thing, and I loved that too. We were talkers -- about our work, our pasts, our friends, our ideas ordinary and far-fetched. We would often wake before there was light in the sky and make coffee and let our minds rattle our tongues. We would end in exhaustion and elation. Not many nights or early mornings later, we would do the same. It was a forty-year conversation."

Cook taught the poet "to see," Oliver writes, "with searching compassion."

AND so, to look at these beautiful, artful, simple, photographs feels strangely intimate. As it does to meet the poet -- still raw, two years after Cook's death -- in their house overlooking Cape Cod Bay. On this fall day, the water a bright expanse of broken glass, she has agreed to be interviewed, only for the sake of the photographs. She sits curled on the sofa in a black sweat shirt and blue jeans, with a broken wrist from a tussle on the beach with Percy, her dog, and a bad case of bronchitis. "Wasn't it Emerson who said 'My life is for itself and not for a spectacle'?" she remarks. "I have a happy, full, good life because I hold it private."

Through the windows behind Oliver, one can see gannets diving into the water. A friend comes to take Percy for a walk. The house, which was once her office, is full of animals. Apologies for shabbiness. There's a huge Audubon lithograph of a barn owl in the hall. Upstairs are shells, necklaces and talismans. Over the bed are three of Cook's photos. In the corner, with the finest view of the water, is a bed for Percy. Oliver gets up early, at 5, and goes to bed early, except during the baseball season.

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