Mary Colby loved Seattle. She was nine years old when her family moved there in 1917. Her father had been the postmaster in Kalispell, the small town in Montana where Mary was born, and after he came into some money he decided to invest it in Seattle’s expanding port. Mary heard Swedish, Russian and Chinese spoken on the docks; her parents treated her to vaudeville shows. Eventually her father had a falling out with his business partners, and in 1920 he opened a general store in Grants Pass, a one-street town in Oregon that had been settled by lumberjacks and forty-niners. Grants Pass seemed negligible to Mary, yet she made a place for herself by reading her way through the town’s small library, everything from Maeterlinck to Fu Manchu novels. After her dad died in 1923, her mother lost money in a string of get-rich-quick schemes. Their only daughter worked, saved what she could and plotted an escape.
A few months before Mary turned eighteen, she left Grants Pass and went to the state agricultural college in Corvallis. In a poetry course she discovered the work of Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Sitting in front of her was a student from San Francisco named George Oppen, who had been kicked out of high school for drinking; he had also been the driver in a car accident in which someone was killed. After a month, George asked Mary out on a date. They drove into the countryside, where they talked and made love, and stayed out until morning. Mary was expelled for violating curfew, George suspended. They would remain inseparable for 58 years.
After working for a while in Oakland, the couple hitchhiked around the Southwest; they got married, supported themselves by doing odd jobs and wrote whenever they could. When they eventually returned to the Bay Area, George’s father chose a house for the newlyweds, with servants. (George was born into a family of great wealth and grew up in an elegant suburb of New York City.) Terrified of the gift and its implications, Mary and George hit the road again in 1928, determined to learn about life by throwing themselves into it. They drove to Oregon and then hitchhiked across the Great Plains. In Detroit, they bought a catboat—George knew how to sail. Using a road map as their guide, they sailed to Lake Erie, then down the Erie Canal to the Hudson River and eventually New York City. During the journey, they shared meals with bargemen. They read Conrad Aiken’s Anthology of Modern Poetry. They took care not to get crushed by larger boats. Mary and George wanted to gain confidence in themselves, and their polestar was a phrase from Sherwood Anderson’s 1918 poem “Song of the Soul of Chicago”—“We want to see if we are any good out here.”
They were. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, George wrote delicate, enigmatic poems, many of which appeared in his first book, Discrete Series, in 1934. Ezra Pound hailed him as “a serious craftsman,” yet George did not write poetry again until around 1958. By the time of his death in 1984, he was one of the great American poets of the twentieth century, having produced a body of work in which the precise movements of a mind thinking are conveyed through a lyricism that attains beauty while eschewing extravagance, an aesthetic that has yet to be fully appreciated or understood.
Mary wrote poetry as well and also translated poems by Rilke and St. John of the Cross, among others. In her late sixties she wrote an autobiography, Meaning a Life, which was published in 1978 by Black Sparrow, a small press in California, alongside her husband’s final book, Primitive. With its clarity, sense of wonder and a candor free of self-absorption, Mary’s book kindled a strong passion among some readers, divided as they were between wanting to keep it to themselves but also share it with the world. Meaning a Life is now back in print in a refurbished edition from a different publisher, New Directions, that includes poems, translations, essays and prose fragments culled from Mary’s papers or that first appeared in periodicals or books now out of print. Among them are a harrowing essay about pregnancy and childbirth, an arch sketch of George’s family and a bemused appraisal of her friends’ reactions to her book.
“Of course I am I and George is most certainly George, his accomplishments are his and mine are mine, but the composite life we live is us,” Mary wrote in 1975. Along with George’s Selected Letters, Meaning a Life is the only prose account of the Oppens’ composite life as they understood it. Inside that story Mary has nested another—a rare story of imagination, companionship and love becoming mysteriously and beautifully aligned.
The Oppens’ adventures continued in New York City when they met the young poet Louis Zukofsky, whose work George had just discovered in a little magazine edited by Pound. The three of them hatched a plan to publish books under the imprint To Publishers. Zukofsky would select manuscripts and handle distribution, the Oppens would arrange the printing and George, who had recently turned 21 and come into an inheritance from his mother’s family, would finance the undertaking. Eager to continue their education by living in another country and viewing their own from a distance, the Oppens boarded a freighter in 1929 and sailed to France. When they returned to New York City four years later, To Publishers had produced one remarkable book apiece by Zukofsky, Pound and William Carlos Williams, yet hardly any copies of them had been sold. Not knowing the first thing about the publishing business, the Oppens hadn’t realized that their books, which were paperbacks, would be treated by American booksellers as magazines and not given any shelf space. When they returned home, George went from bookstore to bookstore, leaving books on consignment, but the returns were negligible.
Not long after To Publishers collapsed, the Oppens were confronted with another failure, one that required a different sense of responsibility. In France in the early Thirties, the Oppens often encountered the wreckage of the Depression in pockets of the countryside in Normandy and the Var, where they lived. Back in New York City, street after street had “an air of disaster,” Mary recalled. Sidewalks were crowded with evicted families sleeping on their furniture. Driving from Baltimore to Brooklyn, she and George watched as “grown men, respectable men—our fathers—stepped forward to ask for a nickel, rag in hand to wipe our windshield.”
The Oppens were chastened and wanted to do something to help alleviate such misery. While they did not believe that the economic crisis made art irrelevant, they thought that poetry and painting were not a cure for the economic and political problems people faced on the streets every day. Mary “did not find honesty or sincerity in the so-called arts of the left,” whereas George found the rhetoric of many political poems to be “merely excruciating.” The reason was that such poems, filled with exhortations about the responsibilities of art or politics, depended on a language that does not test itself. “We must cease to believe in secret names and unexpected phrases which will burst the world,” George wrote in a daybook. He was wary of the idea that every aspect of a life should conform to a coherent political-aesthetic vision or ideology, a form of didacticism that has long been a strong undercurrent in American culture.
Although they did not consider themselves to be professional revolutionaries, the Oppens put aside their interest in the arts to work on “organizing the unemployed to do something themselves about their predicament,” in Mary’s words. They joined the Workers Alliance of the Communist Party because it had effective relief programs, and were soon involved in rent strikes and eviction protests in Brooklyn; they also helped dairy farmers in upstate New York organize a milk strike. Their work was practical, which reflected their wariness of relief efforts designed to promote party ideology. The Oppens were still using a road map to chart a course through unknown waters, thinking and acting in the world on their own terms. They’d turn to that map again in the Fifties when they lived in exile in Mexico for eight years in order to avoid being caught in the dragnet of the House Un-American Activities Committee and made to testify about their political work during the Depression.
“One does what he is most moved to do,” George wrote in a daybook. In 1940, he and Mary became the parents of a daughter, Linda. At the beginning of World War II, George made patterns for Grumman Aircraft. Eventually he was drafted into the Army at the age of 34, fought in the 103rd Division in Europe and was awarded a Purple Heart. (In April 1945, a German shell landed in a foxhole, seriously wounding Oppen and killing two other GIs.) During the postwar boom, George and Mary built houses in southern California. Late in his life, George confessed that he still felt guilty about going off to war because it had been “essentially at Mary’s expense.” Yet he and Mary harbored no regrets about that decision, or any other. Devoted as they were to transforming the materials of life into art, the Oppens knew that a life cannot be changed or enriched by art alone. “If there were grounds for regret, they would simply have sailed past it,” their daughter told the New Yorker a few years ago. The reason was that one of their decisions “was to not regret, not go back into the past.” They did what they were most moved to do.
When Mary Oppen began writing Meaning a Life in 1975, she did return to her past. And while entirely her own, the book’s perspective is marked by what had been a conversation of nearly fifty years between her and George. Early on she quotes a remark of his about how a poem manages to make sense: “There is a moment, an actual time, when you believe something to be true, and you construct a meaning from these moments of conviction.” Like George, Mary was as attuned to understanding the dynamics of a moment of conviction as she was wary of turning it into an imperative about how to write or what to think. Life is lived, art created and responsibility renewed through a constant, often painstaking sense of readjustment from moment to moment, word to word, conviction to conviction. The concision, clarity and candor with which Mary describes such moments of readjustment, and her and George’s lives more generally, is the signature of Meaning a Life. Shortly after the book appeared, the poet Michael Heller praised its sensibility in the New York Times Book Review: it “has that rarest of qualities in an autobiography, a story of lives refusing to be victimized by experience. Always at the forefront of the writing is the detail of how they sought to understand others around them.”
One conviction of Mary’s was that the emergence of second-wave feminism had allowed her to write about her life. After a conversation with George in 1975, she noted, “I started to write with the rise of the Women’s movement, although I have not been active in a political way, but I fully appreciate the victories of the women.” She thought that without the movement her “writing would not have been respected, in the first instance, enough to break through the male writing world.” George and Mary always lived humbly, sometimes in sparsely furnished apartments shared with another couple. It was a way to stretch George’s inheritance and also to downplay the fact that he had one. Here, one senses Mary explaining to her husband, gently and with tact, that as a writer he had inherited a different kind of advantage, one that neither she nor any other woman, despite their comparable talent and ambition, could have easily presumed or enjoyed. George had sensed as much, admitting in a 1974 letter to his niece, “I realize more and more that we have under-rated Mary all these years—I don’t know how we came to do that. I suspect that the women’s movement might explain that to us.”
Was George right? When Meaning a Life was published, one of its chapters appeared in a slightly different form in a special issue of the journal Feminist Studies about birth and motherhood. Mary’s contribution concerns several births of hers that ended in miscarriage or cradle death. At the outset she admits to having “preserved the wholeness of my own experience of birth by not telling it. (Too precious.)” But then she breaks her silence, describing her sense of isolation, guilt and powerlessness, the “wracking devastation by loss” and its paradoxes: “Of course every birth is conceived to include its death—of course, but to carry the life and death of one’s own child before its birth is to be full of it—I confronted that birth and that death with every male I conceived.”
In the introduction to the special issue, its editor, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, explains that after adopting a child she returned often to Adrienne Rich’s recently published book about motherhood, Of Woman Born: “It was also ‘about’ me. … When I felt boredom, I opened her book, and she had written ‘boredom.’ When I felt anger, she had written ‘anger.’” What’s characteristic of Oppen’s contribution to Feminist Studies is the absence of the presumption that any woman who had written about birth or being a mother could speak on her behalf. Second-wave feminism validated Oppen’s ambition, but she did not need it to find a voice or a point of view. “I come as a guest / entering my own life,” begins a poem of hers published in 1979. The serene confidence of these lines, their acceptance of impermanence and expression of self-possession, arises from the recognition that a life becomes meaningful, and its meaning vital, when shaped by chance and purpose, permanence and change.
Why did Mary run off with George? When they met by chance in Corvallis, her father had been dead for three years. Like him, George was ambitious, and Mary knew that the ambitions of the boy from San Francisco exceeded the expectations of a place like Grants Pass. Like George, Mary wanted to be a poet, although she would stop writing poetry in 1928 almost as soon as she had begun, not returning to it until 1970, a year after George was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his masterpiece Of Being Numerous. Mary’s decision to put poetry aside arose not from thwarted ambition or failure, but rather from a reappraisal of her needs and responsibilities as they changed over time. “The long span of years was not silence—it was life,” she states without fanfare or anxiety in Meaning a Life. During those decades she became an accomplished painter whose work was featured in the National Exhibition of Prints at the Library of Congress in 1963. She and George devoted themselves to raising their daughter, Linda, and sometimes faced periods of isolation and deprivation they could not have anticipated and that were nerve-racking to endure. During the war, Mary writes, “Linda was afraid I, too, would disappear as her father had, and she was afraid to have me out of her sight.” When George returned home in November 1945, he had spent roughly as much time apart from their daughter as with her. “Linda does not understand what a joke is; laughter is threatening,” Mary explained to him. The Oppens decided to move to California, and George built a small camping trailer for the trip. During the many hours on the road, Mary recalled, Linda “stood behind the front seat and kept up a constant conversation, happy that she had us where she could touch us.”
Why did George run off with Mary? Her early life in small towns of the Northwest shaped by outsized landscapes and extravagant weather was an alternative to the chauffeured existence awaiting him in New York City and Oakland. Mary shared George’s desire to make a life other than the ones they’d been expected to live: she had gone to Corvallis despite her mother’s strong opposition. Yet Mary’s defiance of her mother did not weaken her desire for the intimacy of family life, which had faded when her father died. As a child George had no such experience of intimacy. His father confused money with love; his mother killed herself with a gun when he was four. In her suicide note, she hinted that domestic life had been difficult, and her son could recite her words from memory: “We’ve been happy—I love you—I worry about the children and school and their clothes—it seems—since I did this and don’t know why—that I am not fitted for this business of life.” In 1970, in a letter to a friend about the sources of sustenance for his and Mary’s life, a crucial one being inheritances from his mother’s family, George said, “We had help from the dead. Who wanted to die.” By way of introducing the parable, he had typed six words: “No danger, ever, of our starving.” The absence of self-pity in that sentence is entirely characteristic of its author.
Mary Oppen is a constant presence in her husband’s correspondence. George will attribute to her a phrase in a poem of his, allude to a conversation of theirs, describe their recent travels. His letters are at turns leisurely, anxious, self-deprecating, solemn, but whenever he refers to Mary, it’s with an ease borne of devotion and trust. Her letters remain unpublished. It’s clear, though, that when Mary returned to writing prose and poetry in the 1970s, she began to have a different kind of correspondence with George, writing in her own manner about experiences and observations they shared or had in common.
In the seventh section of the title poem of Of Being Numerous, George writes:
By the shipwreck
Of the singular
We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous.
These lines are concerned with the relationship between the individual and the community, between an isolated, singular person—a shipwrecked Crusoe—and any community that in making a life possible to live also threatens to hinder or obliterate it. Yet when the “bright light of shipwreck” appears in the poem’s nineteenth section, it is associated with something different—helicopter pilots dropping napalm during the Vietnam War. The bright light can also be death by fire, the sign of a singular, bewildering obsession that obliterates people, and it too can be numerous.
In “Re: Maine,” an essay published in 1981, Mary writes about several women shipwrecked in tiny communities on Eagle Island, where she and George spent their summers. One of the women is Marge, an island native who has endured two difficult marriages. In the first, her husband could not bear to be with her; in the second, she could not stand being with her husband. In an attempt to please her, the second husband builds Marge a house with a modern kitchen deep in the woods—“but she stays outside, works all the land anyone offers her, plants gardens that grow,” Mary writes. Wherever Marge is, “life is not ordinary.” She is sovereign, a bit of singular shipwreck. The acuity and poignancy of Oppen’s account of Marge’s life rests on the assurance of someone writing about a person she’s come intimately to know. And just as she is drawn to the story of a woman who refuses to be confined, Oppen also senses that the island Marge has made her home surpasses anyone’s capacity to encompass it: “We climb into the sun. Above the tree-tops steps are cut in the rock, we feel beneath our feet the back-bone of the island, back-bone thrust up from the ocean floor deep in Penobscot Bay.” The island can make one feel merely numerous, an isolated, minuscule footprint in a vast whole.
Mary was not of one mind about isolation. In Meaning a Life, she describes the experience of sailing with George as one of suspension and rediscovery: “The isolation, with our world at times a twenty-foot enclosure of fog in which we are complete in ourselves, is a repeated experience from which we absorb meaning. … This experience is one which holds our world together for us.” Mary’s knowledge of sailing, and the insights and satisfaction she derived from it, were deep and hard-won. Besides having traveled with George across France in a horse-drawn cart, leaving the U.S. for Mexico without telling close friends so as not to risk betraying them to the FBI, and going with George to the notorious Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in 1969, Mary could also lean from the bowsprit of a sailboat and detect the color, number and shape of a passing buoy in thick fog, thereby determining the boat’s coordinates and quickly plotting a course away from an unseen sandbar or the fast-approaching shore, and the risk of shipwreck.
Late in her life, Mary wrote lyrical poems of stark beauty about sailing and the sea. This one appeared in 1980:
our boat makes a way for us
it is a free passage
held in the surges
or standing on the sea of glass
our words move towards
Harnessing wind to move through water, a sailboat exists in a difficult middle: “a free passage / held in the surges.” That passage is always being tested because the boat is at the mercy of the fluctuating conditions of wind and water; in open water it cannot find shelter in a squall. A sailboat is a test of solitude, not unlike a poem, and in that sense sailing and sharing a life on water is the ongoing poem that Mary and George collaborated on throughout their life. It was a life of wonder and the unknown, of “standing on the sea of glass,” a phrase from Revelations.
Here’s one way that George imagined a free passage held in the surges:
till other voices wake
us or we drown
These are the concluding lines of the last poem in Primitive. They repeat, with several crucial differences, the final line of T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Till human voices wake us and we drown.” In Eliot’s line, we may be submerged, die, be forgotten, despite having been awakened by human voices. In Oppen’s lines, drowning is as more or less possible as awakening to the voices of others. With one change to the final line in “Prufrock”—“or” for “and”—Oppen turns it into something new. By proposing a choice of alternatives, he imagines a sense of the future, albeit an ambiguous one; he also allows for a degree of freedom, yet without a sense of direction.
Oppen longs to dwell in possibility, a state invoked in the lines directly preceding the poem’s final two: “the myriad // lights have entered / us it is a music more powerful // than music.” The “us” here is Mary and George. By putting “us” at the beginning of the third line in this passage, as well as at the beginning of the poem’s last line, thereby cutting against the syntax and rhythm of the final line of “Prufrock,” George places an immense amount of emphasis on that one word, and thereby on the importance of him and Mary remaining together, of being numerous. And he does so fully aware of the uncertainty and the risk of failure—“or we drown”—inherent to any sense of possibility, to a music more powerful than music, to words moving toward each other. George is not confusing uncertainty with indecisiveness. He is affirming his love of Mary while testing his language and himself, each act in its own way an expression of devotion, respect and trust.
Were they any good out there? Yes, especially in the surges.
Image credit: Stephen Johnson, George and Mary Oppen, Pt. Reyes National Seashore, 1977. © Stephen Johnson. All rights reserved.