Mary, we turn to the children
As they will turn to the children
Wanting so much to have created happiness
As if a stem to the leaves—
-- George Oppen, from his poem “Return.”With the fairly recent and welcome republication of George Oppen’s New Collected Poems, about which I’ve spoken elsewhere, it seems to me important to note that George was not the only great writer in the family: Mary Oppen’s book Meaning is surely one of the classic, albeit unsung, memoirs of the twentieth century. And modern as we think modernism is, this excerpt – about Mary’s childhood vacations - will show you just how close writers of the Oppens' generation were to a decidedly unmodern way of life… and it’s a great end-of summer bit of writing, as well:
“The roads we traveled were dusty or muddy; saplings or logs laid across marshy places in the road made what we called “corduroy,” over which our wheels rumbled as we passed. Sometimes the men in our party cut more saplings to lay over deep mud. Bridges which had been built for horsedrawn lumber-wagons were thrown across streams of ravines by lumber-workers. The roadway on these bridges was of planks laid over an understructure of logs, with no side rails; we dismounted before crossing to lighten the load in the car [a Model T!] and someone always walked in front of each car to make sure the wheels stayed on the planks. I then crossed to the other side on foot, aware of the drop to a sometimes roaring river far below. Wide rivers had a ferry, usually manned by a father and son who lived nearby. The road which slanted steeply down into the river was visible on the other bank, rising steeply to continue into wilderness. We passed horses with caution, as they were still unused to seeing cars and might bolt. We seldom met another car, and we never passed one; Papa usually slowed down to wait until the huge clouds of dust had settled. If it had rained, sheets of water flew out as our wheels passed through puddles in the road. Before a trip, Papa inquired at the Post Office until he found someone who had recently been over a road we planned to go on, because roads washed out, bridges gave way, marshy places became bogs and ferries were sometimes not running. A trip in any direction from Kalispell [Montana, where Mary’s family lived] was an adventure.
One vacation […] another child and I started across some shallow rapids with a young woman from another tent holding us each by one hand. As she lost her footing in the swift current she let me go, and I was swept downstream. One of the men heard our screams, jumped in and rescued me. I don’t remember fear – perhaps it happened too fast – what I do remember is the strange assortment of clothing that was found for me until my own dried out.”
Mary came from relatively rough and humble beginnings; yet though comfortable, her family’s social and other fortunes apparently declined somewhat after her father’s death, which occurred when she was fifteen years old. Because her father died of cancer, she wanted to be a doctor, but didn’t take well to college education, and she left school. She tried again, saving money to attend the Agricultural College in Corvallis – but was ejected for spending a night off campus with George, who she'd met there through an English teacher, talking about poetry and making love. Mary eventually made an extraordinary and unconventional life for herself, with George as her poet-companion; at an early age, the pair took to the road - decades before Kerouac. About this she wrote:"We had learned at college that poetry was being written in our own times, and that in order for us to write it was not necessary for us to ground ourselves in the academic; the ground we needed was the roads we were travelling... We understood from our experiences while hitchhiking that in the United States we were not required to remain in the class into which we were born. We wanted to see a great deal of the world, and the education of which we talked for ourselves was to leave our class and learn our life by throwing ourselves into it."
Mary and George eventually married, despite her conviction that their relationship was "not an affair of the State." He wore his college roommate's baggy plus-fours, and she a borrowed purple velvet dress; they took along a pint of gin which they did not drink and a ten-cent ring that George forgot to pull out of his pocket till it was too late. And in 1932 - six years after Mary and George met - money she inherited from her family funded the publication of An “Objectivists” Anthology, issued by TO Publishers ("to," she explains, in the sense of "to whom it may concern," as on a bill of lading, or to indicate the infinitive, "to publish"), a small press begun by the Oppens with Charles Reznikoff, and Louis Zukofsky.
The rest, as they say, is history.