Mary Mackey’s most recent book, Creativity: Where Poems Begin opens slowly and builds complexity as she explores the question: Where does creativity come from?

Author of 14 novels and 8 volumes of poetry, Mary (Lou) Mackey was born in  Indianapolis, Indiana in 1945. Something of a genius, reading the Bible and The Declaration of Independence at the age 12, Mackey attended Harvard in the 1960s when  it was Radcliffe—a separate women’s school of 750 women while 7000 men were enrolled at Harvard proper.

At Harvard Mackey, from a small town in middle America with the name Mary Lou, and an accent announcing other-ness, is relentlessly bullied by her roommates. She is made to know quite early on that she is no match class-wise to most of the women in the school. And then there is the matter of her sex.

“Women cannot even use Lamont, the Harvard Undergraduate Library, where all the books for our courses are on reserve. (Don’t worry,” a Radcliffe dean tells me when I complain about this. “A girl as pretty as you will always be able to find a boyfriend to check out her books for her.”) Since we are forbidden to step over the threshold of Lamont, and since security guards regularly turn every woman back—including on one occasion the future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—no female undergraduate is ever able to enter the Woodberry Poetry Room where all the famous poets who come to Harvard are invited to read from their work. Nor do we get to read any of the rare, small press poetry collections or listen to any of the approximately 6,000 poetry recordings archived there.

As a result of being banned from Lamont, I miss Alan Ginsberg reading from “Howl.” I miss Robert Frost. I am not only an outsider; I am literally outside when they read”(41).

Though the era of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, the birth of Second Wave Feminism and the psychedelic revolution, play into her formation as a person and to her creativity, looking back, Mackey can name a couple of other things that made her who she is and gave birth to her particular brand of creativity.

One is the extremely high fevers she experiences intermittently and unexpectedly throughout her life. Intoxicating fevers that provide glimpses of alternative realities, alien voices, hallucinations and mystical knowing. The second is rejection. Rejection of  her voice and experience and, most especially, rejection as a female.

She pursues a phase of writing “like a man,” receiving accolades, but even in that success is painfully aware she will never be let into that exclusive male club. This rejection ultimately forces her to develop her own voice and writing style. If, even when imitating men, she is still shut out of jobs and titles because of her sex, why not write what is true to her soul? Why not let her own voice sing? And why not sing about things she truly cares about?

Richard Evans Shultes was a mentor

I was delighted to find the chapter on Richard Evans Shultes and her unique experience of sharing his love of the novelist Charles Dickens. Famed ethnobotanist and explorer, Shultes mentored many students in his time at Harvard, several who have become well-established in their own fields. Mackey turns out to be one of them. I have read Wade Davis and his writings about Shultes extensively with admiration and awe for both. Here I was discovering Mackey too had this connection but with a unique literary twist!

Finding an inspiring and trustworthy guide at a time in youth when one is seeking and often floundering is a gift beyond measure. Mackey says of Shultes:

“His comparatively modest descriptions of his plant-hunting expeditions in the Amazon will inspire in me a life-long love of the tropics and a strong desire to travel where he traveled and see what he has seen. Without actively meaning to, he will instill in me a sense of the cathedral-like beauty of the rainforest; and that great forest, which I often think of by its old name “jungle,” will enter my dreams, saturate me with its mystery and nonhuman otherness, and become the source for some of my most powerful poems”(49).

In Creativity: Where Poems Begin she recounts the story of him striking up a conversation with her across the dining table one day in the cafeteria where they discover their mutual love for Dickens.

Shultes informs her that the next day is Dickens’s one hundredth and fifty-second birthday. He invites her to the celebration that The Boston Dickens Fellowship, of which he is a member, is having at the Old North Church. After a quirky evening with this eccentric club, Shultes offers Mackey an internship (which she accepts) at the Harvard Botanical Museum, changing the course of her life and adding a new flavor to her emerging creativity.

She subsequently takes some of his classes where she learns of the potent plant hallucinogens that Shultes classified and catalogued during years of on the ground research in South and Central America. As he describes their various effects, Mackey knows immediately what he is talking about. She also knows she doesn’t need to try any. She has experienced similar things in her mysterious bouts of high fever. It does, however, provide her with a way to understand what happens to her when fever takes over her body.

Post Harvard, Mackey travels to Costa Rica and begins her own personal, lifelong relationship with the jungle.

“The jungle will test me, frighten me, console me, and change me. It will show me that there are actual places on earth as strange, luminous, and indescribable as the places I see when my fever rises above 106 degrees. In the jungle, I will fall in love with wildness, and this love for wild things will make me into a poet”(60).

Feminist firsts

Mary Mackey in the jungle in her formative years

In the chapter titled “Shameless Hussy” Mackey tells us of having her first novel, Immersion published by Shameless Hussy Press, an event now referred to as the “first feminist novel published by a second wave feminist press”(84).

Shameless Hussy Press was run by one woman named Alta. Its mission was to publish people whose voices were seldom heard—mostly women.

“From 1969 to 1989 her Shameless Hussy Press will publish one important feminist work after another: African-American Playwright Ntozke Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, Lesbian poet Pat Parker’s Child of Myself, Susan Griffin’s Dear Sky, Mitsuye Yamada’s Camp Notes and Other Poems”(85)

The publication of Immersion brings Mackey into a world of other feminist writers many who become both friends and collaborators. She goes on to co-create many groundbreaking  feminist groups and university programs including the Women’s Studies program at California State University in Sacramento where she taught for many years.

The Earthsong Trilogy

Years before Creativity: Where Poems Begin landed on my desk I had heard about Mackey for her Earthsong Trilogy.

The Earthsong Trilogy consists of The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate and The Fires of Spring. The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale is a prequel published  later.

The novels are all set in Neolithic Old-Europe. They are inspired by the work of archaeologist and scholar Marija Gimbutas, who coined the term Old-Europe, and her comprehensive books The Language of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess. Gimbutas details and catalogues the remains of cultures in Paleolithic and Neolithic Europe that reveal women centered societies who worshipped a life-giving, regenerative Goddess in many shapes and forms.

Read our post about Maria Gimbutas: Marija Gimbutas: Unearthing the Goddess, Rocking My World, Lithuanian-American Woman Writer and Archaeologist (1921-1994)

It would have been enough for Mackey to recreate but one of these neolithic villages but her characters travel back and forth across the European continent in neolithic times and bring to life a variety of the locations that have been uncovered by archaeological excavations in believable and potent detail.

She even explores the differing worldviews that were active at the time. These novels are incredible in detail and vivid with description. One is instantly sunk into the worldview, of the cultures, created with care and authenticity.

The Year the Horses Came

The Year the Horses Came, set in 4372 BCE, is a novel exploring the time when the people from the Sea of Grass, (Russian Steppes), begin to infiltrate the lands of the Goddess or what Mackey calls the “Motherland.”

The Motherland cultures are matrilineal and matrifocal, engaged in farming and fishing. They live in villages grouped in longhouses. Their lives constellate around a belief in the Earth as Mother, often imaged as a snake or bird. The cosmology is one of reciprocity and cyclic seasonal rituals with young people (both male and female) being taught to honor their sexuality and each other as well as the land and its many animated features.

There are priestesses, prophetesses and oracles. While pregnant, Marrah’s mother  receives prophecy about Marrah, the one who will save them from the “beastmen.” They have no idea what the term beastmen means until people from the Sea of Grass ride into the Motherland on horses, a beast the people of the Motherland are unfamiliar with. The beastmen have a different worldview and customs from those in the Motherland. Their arrival will change the Motherland forever.

This meeting of cultures has been well proved as an actual historical occurrence. Mackey imagines what this contrast felt like through her characters and an unlikely love story  between Marrah and Stavan, one of the beastmen whom Marrah’s village has found shipwrecked and nursed back to life.

From the coast of Brittany, France, Marrah must travel with Stavan and her brother through Old-Europe back to the village her mother came from on the banks of the Sweetwater Sea (Black Sea). Marrah is carrying a message: they must prepare themselves. The prophecy has come to pass. The beastmen are coming.

As she travels to deliver this message with one of the actual beastmen himself, we feel nervous, conflicted as well as astounded at her bravery. Marrah is by far one of the most courageous characters I have ever read. Mackey’s prose is dense and passionate with poetic interludes and descriptions of the natural world that could only have been inspired by her time in the jungle and through her bouts of fever. The level of beauty captured in these works is edible.

I was transported into the realms and cultures Gimbutas teaches of, and felt devastated to see them end.

“The circle was the circle of Life, the circle of the Earth Herself, moving from spring to winter to spring, from birth to death to birth, and all Feasts of the Dead ended with it.

Marrah was part of the circle, and as she danced she too felt herself disappearing into the group. Like people reaching out to take each others’s hands, the minds of the Shore People reached out to touch one another, and at the moment of contact they became a single Over-mind, greater than any of Its parts. At the instant Marrah became one with the Over-mind, she felt a rushing sensation that seemed to lift her off her feet, and she remembered things she had no way of knowing. The memories of the Over-mind were not intellectual or even intelligent: they were deeper and much more powerful, like dreams boiled down to their essence.

As the Over-mind danced It remembered thousands of dances, all going on at the same time like circles within circles with no end and no beginning. Beside each human danced the spirit of all the ancestors who had ever lived, and beside each ancestor the spirit of every animal, and beside the human and the animals the forest danced and the sun and the moon danced, and even the stars dances around the Tree”(YHC 90).

Mackey the poet

I don’t want to neglect the fact that Mary Mackey is also a highly praised poet. Therefore, I close with one of the poems she includes in Creativity: Where Poems Begin, about her great-grandmother’s advice.

The Woman in the Moon
Mary Mackey

my great-grandmother
married at sixteen
a blue-eyed Irish woodworker
who promised to build her
a life out of apple wood
and cherry
instead he gave her
thirteen children
drank up the rent
and died of blood poisoning
while building a carriage
shaped like a shoe

for forty years
she lived alone
dressed in black
like a retired witch
in a house full of chests
and chairs and wooden clocks
waiting for him
to come home again

when she was eighty
and I was four
her skin was so thin
by then that you could
see her veins like grain
she kept her teeth
in a glass of water
and her heart in a rosewood
box by the door

there is a woman in the moon
my great-grandmother told me
who carries a bundle of sticks
on her back

each month she swells
each month she declines
like many women
she has married a burden
and must bear it forever
across the sky

life bends us, she told me
my own life was scrap wood
my own life was sorrow
thick as a board

tell all your daughters
to build something better
burn kindling
not carry
keep one eye on the sky

~ ~ ~ ~

Mackey’s vast body of work, and all the unique forms of creativity it delivers, is definitely worth delving into.

Mary Mackey is a Nasty Woman Writer.

©Theresa C. Dintino 2023

Works cited:

Mackey, Mary. Creativity: Where Poems Begin. East Rockaway, N.Y. Marsh Hawk Press, 2022.

_________. The Year the Horses Came. Penguin. 1993