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Patriarchy Bends: Poet & Novelist Mary Mackey Honored at Harvard

by Jonah Raskin

RIGHT NOW, POET AND NOVELIST Mary Mackey is sitting very pretty. But more than four decades ago, when she was an undergraduate at Harvard, she was not allowed to enter the Lamont Library on the campus. This semester the university invited her to read from her award-winning book of poems, The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, many of them set in the ecologically endangered Brazilian Amazon. "I feel like I've come full circle," Mackey says. "I'll be able to go where I was once excluded." The author of eight volumes of poetry and fourteen novels—including a series of four that explore the goddess-worshiping culture of Neolithic Europe—Mackey won the 2019 Eric Hoffer Award for The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, celebrating it as the "Best Book Published by a Small Press." From 1989 to 1992 she was president of the West Coast branch of PEN, and a longtime member of the Northern California Book Reviewers, co-presenters of the Northern California Book Awards (former BABRA). Berkeley was her home for decades. At California State University, Sacramento she helped to create the Women's Studies Program.

In a recent phone conversation, Mackey remembered that no women were allowed in the Lamont Library at Harvard, though all the texts that were required reading were shelved there. She remembers that a professor told her, "Don't worry, you'll always have a boy friend to check them out for you." The patriarchy and misogyny expressed themselves in many ways when Mackey was at Harvard from 1962 to 1966. There were no women professors and women were not allowed to attend poetry readings in the Woodberry Poetry Room at the Lamont. That meant that she was denied entrance to a reading by Robert Frost, and another by Allen Ginsberg.

Nor were women permitted to attend Harvard dinners with famous scholars and teachers. The argument, Mackey explains, was that "Women would bring down the tone of the conversation." Fortunately, she was allowed to enroll in a poetry class along with nineteen men. Mackey was the only woman in the room. "I was called 'Mary,'" she says. "Everyone else was 'Mr. Brown' or "Mr. Smith.'" Curiously, or perhaps not, Margaret Atwood was at Harvard in 1962 when Mackey was there. "Presumably she wasn't allowed into the library, either," Mackey says. She adds that the Harvard campus inspired some of the settings for The Handmaid's Tale and Testaments.

Looking back, Mackey feels that she turned her exclusion from the library and from poetry events to her advantage. "Because I was not part of the boys' network I had to find my own way," she says. "My work turned out to be more original than if I'd been included. Otherwise it would have been like white male verse." Mackey earned a B.A. from Harvard, where she was an English major, and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, though she does not have an MFA. In an essay titled "Fever and Jungles," she writes that she "became a poet by running high fevers, tramping through tropical jungles, dodging machine gun fire, and being caught in volcanic eruptions." In that same essay she explains that growing up she read "constantly, compulsively, secretly, defiantly, and sneakily in any class that was boring."

Mackey will dedicate her reading at the Harvard Coop to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who was also turned away from the library, and who challenged, in court, all-male institutions like the Virginia Military Institute.

Mary Mackey reads at the Harvard Coop on Monday October 21, 2019 from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Jonah Raskin is professor emeritus at Sonoma State University. From 1985-2005 he was book critic for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat. He is the author of sixteen books, including most recently Dark Land, Dark Mirror and Dark Day, Dark Night: A Marijuana Murder Mystery. His other books are James McGrath: in A Class By Himself, Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War, and Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California. He has published six poetry chapbooks, among them Rock 'n' Roll Women: Portraits of a Generation, and is a member of the Northern California Book Reviewers.

— posted October 2019

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