Mary wasted no time getting down to business. Tall and dignified, with clear, knowing eyes, she sounded me out on what poets I read, what I liked, and my opinions of modern poetry. Nervous and dumbfounded, I managed to blather something about a verse in T.S. Eliot's poem "Little Gidding," at which she drew down from the shelf a hardbound copy of The Four Quartets, opened to the poem, and began to read the verse aloud. Her high, melodious voice was unlike the contemporary poets I was accustomed to hearing at the Reed Poetry Forum. She read the verse in a natural conversational style but with a distinctly measured cadence that flowed beautifully. "Little Gidding" never sounded better. This, I thought to myself, was literature.
Other visits would follow, often with my classmate Marianne Jones '82, who was writing her thesis on a German woman poet. Mary generously shared with us stories of her own time at Reed and of her mentors: poets Ezra Pound, with whom she struck up a correspondence shortly after graduating from Reed; William Carlos Williams; and Marianne Moore. She talked about her experiences in the New York literary world of the '30s and '40s, where she rubbed shoulders with other young aspiring writers such as Delmore Schwartz and Muriel Rukeyser, and later worked for years with historian Carl Van Doren. She recounted her time at the Yaddo artist colony and her stint as curator of the University of Buffalo's poetry collection. We learned that in the early 1950s she came down with two potentially fatal illnesses and returned to Vancouver, where, during her convalescence, she began working on her translations of Sappho's poetry. Sappho: A New Translation has been in continuous publication for the last 40 years and has sold more than 100,000 copies, a remarkable feat for a book of poetry.
These stories were all offered in a gentle, self-ironic manner, many of them fresh in Mary's mind, since she was working on her memoir, Assault on Mount Helicon, which would be published in 1984 by the University of California Press.
The afternoons I spent with her ignited my imagination in many ways. Her description of the literary life in New York and of her friendship with legendary literary publisher James Laughlin of New Directions, who published her first group of poems, "Cool Country," in a 1940 collection called Five Young American Poets (Mary being the only woman in the book, cheek-to-jowl with the likes of John Berryman and Randall Jarrell), would in part inspire my own move to New York City after graduation to work in the field of literary publishing.