Kundalini Splendor

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Friday, September 09, 2005

Mary Oliver's partner 

A few days ago, Molly Malone Cook, the long time partner of Mary Oliver, died. Here is the notice which appeared in the Provincetown paper.

Molly Malone Cook, 80
Photographer, literary agent, assistant to Norman Mailer

"Molly Malone Cook, 80, of Provincetown died at home on Aug. 26 following a lengthy illness. For more than 40 years, she shared her life with the poet Mary Oliver.

Her interests and her friends were many and throughout her life kept growing. She was born in California, and was a WW II U.S. Marine Corp veteran. In her early 20s, while traveling in Europe, she obtained a position with the U.S. government, working in the Palace of Justice in Heidelberg, Germany. It was there that her interest in photography began. When she returned to New York she became the second photographer for a young newspaper, The Village Voice. She first visited Provincetown in the late 1950s and there established the VII Photographers' Studio, the first photo gallery on the East Coast. Among the photographers she represented were W. Eugene Smith, Minor White, Harry Callahan, Edward Steichen, Berenice Abbott and Eugene Atget. When visiting Steichen to ask for his participation, years before the value of photographic work was widely recognized, he remarked, "Are you rich or crazy?" "I'm not rich." was her reply. Her gallery attracted many visitors, but few buyers, and she eventually combined the photographs with a bookstore, stocking the classics and other books she considered good literature. One publishers' saleswoman left the store befuddled by her refusal to carry that summer's sure seller, "The Valley of the Dolls." It was during this period that she hired a wild-appearing young man seeking a summer job; this began her long and rich relationship with the filmmaker John Waters.

During her time as a professional photographer, and later as well, she photographed many people of note, Eleanor Roosevelt, Walker Evans, Robert Motherwell and Adlai Stevenson among them. She maintained a close friendship with the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, before and during the writing of " Raisin in the Sun," until Ms. Hansberry's death in 1965.

When lung problems began to be apparent, Ms. Cook could no longer work in the atmosphere of the dark room to develop and print her own work.

Ms. Cook and Ms. Oliver met in 1958, at the home of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, in upper state New York, where they had come, separately, to visit the poet's sister, Norma Millay and her husband, the painter Charles Ellis. In 1964 they began their life together in Provincetown, living at first in a small boathouse on the property of a Portuguese family, the Seguras. With this family they maintained for years a cherished relationship.

Ms. Cook traveled frequently with Ms. Oliver to readings or longer sessions while the poet taught. In Virginia for several years, they searched through the old small towns and courthouses for records of the southern strain of Ms. Cook's ancestry, finding, delightfully, the line going back, slowly but directly, to Judith Jefferson, the president's aunt.

In the 1970s, for several years, Ms. Cook worked as assistant to Norman Mailer, attending to both personal and professional matters. Also in the '70s, Ms. Cook began the Molly Malone Cook Literary Agency, representing Ms. Oliver as well as other writers.

In 1986 they traveled together to New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan, fulfilling a U.S. Information Agency cultural tour.

The house they eventually chose to live in, where Ms. Oliver still lives, is small and as close to the harbor as a house can be, full of books and dogs, all sorts of works in progress and many friends.

In addition to her partner, Ms. Cook is survived by her brother, Fred M. Cook, her niece, Katherine Cook, both of Aptos, Calif.

The Rev. M. Thomas Shaw, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, will conduct a memorial service at a time and date to be announced. Memorial donations may be made to the VNA of Cape Cod, 434 Route 134, South Dennis, MA 02660, or the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, 138 Tremont St., Boston, MA 02111, stipulating the gift for their current work in Africa."

Those of us who know and love the work of Mary Oliver were deeply moved by this announcement. Mary Oliver herself is a shining spirit. Her work has touched countless thousands of readers. She has affirmed always that humanity is essentially good, that we ourselves can connect with the deep underlying mysteries most often discovered in the world of nature. Beauty, love, honor, tenderness--all of these characterize her work. We have loved her because she has constantly reminded us of what it means to be truly human. And she does this with unfailing grace and eloquence in her skillful writings.

So our hearts go out to her. I confess I did not know who Molly Cook was until I read this account, but clearly she was herself a remarkable woman, and an essential presence in the life of this wondrous poet.

Some time ago, I wrote this poem about Mary Oliver and reprint it below:

The Able Poet
(for Mary Oliver)

She has won everything.
And why not.
She is skilled in her craft,
gifted like a blind
woodworker, who can polish and scale
her creations in the dark,
can tell by the feel of the surfaces
what is complete or needs
attending to.

Sometimes her expertise
takes our breath away,
the image so dazzling
we suck in an "Ah!"
and inwardly lament
oh why didn't I see this
before, necessary conjunction
of the unexpecteds, yet
so fitting, so exact.

We read on, held and unbelieving
at the marvel of the just right,
the rare attainment
of the totally apt
like a gem curved and perfectly shaped
glinting confidently
in the circling light
with no flaws,
none at all.

copyright, Dorothy Walters

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