A November Moment: Reading Steepletop, an Essay by Mary Oliver

First snow, early darkness – it’s book-reading season, and my purpose here is to lure you into reading the essay in this post’s title. Whatever I can offer for summary and comment pales beside the essay itself, and perhaps I should stop here, say simply, “Go, read this for yourself.” But command is no lure at all; it summons, if anything, our reflexive no-selves, well muscled from age two on. “Eat your vegetables; take a lap; brush your teeth; time’s up…” “No,” we say well before thought gathers. No? Okay, no command then.

So, here’s a bit of what I think Mary Oliver is up to in her luminous essay Steepletop, published in her first book of prose, Blue Pastures, in 1995. And why still, this whole sentence later, I think you should read it.


As a newly-minted high school graduate who is looking for a way out of Ohio, Oliver goes to visit Steepletop, from 1925 – 50 the New York state home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and her husband, Eugen Boissevain. Millay has died (as has Boissevain), and her sister Norma has taken up residence as holder of the family name and legacy of this poet who was the first woman to win the Pulitzer, an honor she got at age 31. There, through a series of visits that become finally residence, Oliver finds her first home away from home, and she finds a sort of older sibling figure in the poet’s sister and literary executor, Norma Millay. A young, aspiring poet, Oliver is taken in, but not, we learn in the essay, deceived by the stories she hears of Edna Millay’s tempestuous and brilliant life.

We as readers know also that Oliver herself has gone on to win a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award; she has become one of this country’s most loved poets. But in the recollections of the essay, all of that lies in the future as Oliver casts back to her memories of a time of genesis in her life.

And that sense of Oliver-in-making is what draws me into the essay, even as that is not its overt subject. It is written by a mature Oliver, one who has recently turned (submitted?) to the requests of prose, even as her poems are her central expression. That the writing is luminous in its particulars may go without saying, but I say it anyway: the writing shines in sentence and phrasing.

Steepletop makes central the story of Edna Millay’s grand passion for and with George Dillon. Millay’s long-running and then abruptly-ended affair with Dillon emerges to the young Oliver in family fits and starts, as told by Norma Millay. Oliver listens, then listens some more; her habit of attention, the wellspring of her poetry, is clear.

Here’s a small, but indicative moment: partway through her essay, Oliver offers a footnote. It concerns the 1931 publication of Millay’s Fatal Interview and Dillon’s The Flowering Stone, both of which draw from the long tempest of their affair. Oliver says she “knows this to be true.” And then she demurs, invokes a “mist that surrounds it forever,” that always obscures some essential truth or truths, some unknowable part of a life or lives.

To invoke obscuring mist so clearly, to make the reader know that all can’t be known, even as this story carries one on and much is known, that there is mystery at the heart of all heartsongs seems to me a good description of Mary Oliver’s gifts as a writer. In the clearest language she brings us into misty mystery, where we feel at least as much as we see.

There is, of course, much more in this essay, and in its volume, Blue Pastures. Earlier, I shed command. Now, I offer instead invitation: come read this essay…this book. It is a fine early winter afternoon’s companion; pair it with a cup of tea and take it to your favorite chair, where lamplight pools in the late afternoon dark.

First snow calls on book-reading season

First snow calls on book-reading season

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Duck Talk

For hours, on fall days, I watched the ducks cunningly tack and veer and hold the middle of the pond, far from the sportsman…but what beside safety they got by sailing in the middle of Walden I do not know, unless they love its water for the same reason that I do. Thoreau, Walden

Even before I crest the small rise I can hear them: the ducks are talking. Their conversation sounds easy, easeful, the sort your hear at the outset of a party before everyone’s in full voice and all subtlety drops away. Recently, they have clustered on this little pond on the way to the Commons in a density brought on, perhaps, by hunting season – how do they know this residential water is off limits? – and perhaps by recent nights’ icings. It has dropped to 19 degrees, and the skim is still firm in the shade this afternoon. And there’s a hint of snow in the little dells beside the trail. I think they should get a migratory move on, but they seem unhurried.

As my head appears, the low muttering morphs to notice, each duck-voice distinct. “Do you see that?” they quack. “Over there, That, That, That…Quack, Quack, Quack.” I half-expect them to point with their bills. And those near the pond’s edge paddle from it toward their brethren in the middle or along a farther fringe. A few beat their wings, as if to show that they can fly…and will…but then they drop to paddling too. Perhaps they know I have no gun; perhaps they know that this neighborhood is sanctuary; perhaps, as I bend away along the trail, I have stepped beyond their necessary duck-space.

As close as they let me get

At some distance, as close as they let me get

The ducks go back to mutter; they discuss my arrival and veering away, and the sound crosses the water, skips off the new ice. I thumb through the worn pages of my memory for the word that describes a gathering of ducks on water. Flock? No, that’s in flight. Is it covey? No, that’s quails, I think. Ah, I’ve heard ducks on water called a raft; yes, I think so. The other word available turns out to be a “paddling.” Descriptive yes, but does “raft” or “paddling” convey what I hear, which could be the sound of so many Hucks and Jims talking as they float? Not really.

What then to call this talky raft?

Here are two possibilities: colloquacky; or maybe quackoquy. Or perhaps you will summon and share a better word.

All part of the fun of walking without aim – you can make the world up as you go.

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Nosing Out

This is a very beautiful November day, — a cool but clear, crystalline air, through which even the white pines with their silvery sheen are an affecting sight. It is a day to behold and ramble over the hard (stiffening) and withered surface of the tawny earth. Thoreau, Journal 11/22/60

I awoke today to the first froth of snow rimming the yard. It was gone in the time it took to drink my coffee. But it serves as announcement. Still, the season shifts a little more slowly on the nearby ocean, and not long ago I was on it in search of slowed motion. Being near the ocean as the year ebbs (or floods) gives you access to two seasons, the foot-stepping one of the land and the slow follower of the water.

For the most part, the water-season’s over. Boats are shrink-wrapped and tucked away in storage; only the wind-flung leaves animate the waves as they reach for the shore; and all the osprey and eagle nests that sowed the air with birds are empty. Still, on a day when the winds stay away, and after the slanting sun warms the air a little, I sometimes rack my boat on the car’s roof and go to the sea.

To be clear, as the waters cool, I am wary. The ocean buoys are flirting with 50, and even in the calm bays the temps aren’t much higher. A bath in that sort of water can quickly become a one-way plunge. But I have a drysuit, which makes me feel a little like an astronaut – sans the helmet and Houston – and I’m not about to embark on a “test-piece” of paddling toward some extreme, so some float-time seems okay.

On this day, even in the afternoon, the sea-world seems to have exhaled and dropped into a nap. What ripples there are on the waters emphasize their calm and the tranquil sky above. Paddling on such a surface has the feel of sliding across polished glass, and I begin my circuit of little islands by making the day’s long letter – the V of passage.

The V that makes the V of passage

The V that makes the V of passage

As the point of this V I aim at little Scrag Island, and its northern headland, a cliff that looks like a big ship’s prow. There, I drift for bit, watching the silent rock, admiring how the fifty-foot pines somehow find holds that keep them upright and growing an annual foot or so. The absence of any “quick-life,” – birds, boats, us – keeps me at this scene where pine clasps rock; I feel no hurry. When I do paddle on, the shore sliding by on my left, it is simply for the pleasure of this easy sliding.

Island pines holding on, rising

Island pines holding on, rising

There is, I think, no large message from this day, other than its glimpse into the longer spans of time where tree and rock simply persist. But there is the expanse of water and sky, the stretch of vision that seems, as I float, back on time’s tide.

Though you are finger-cold toward night, and you cast a stone on your first ice, and see the unmelted crystals under every bank, it is glorious November weather, and only the November fruits are out. Thoreau, Journal, 11/22/60

Today is one of those fruits.

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