New York Times writer reflects on the Mary MacKenzie Project

New York Times
Sunday, June 19, 2005 — Metro Section

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — When the village historian, Mary Landon MacKenzie, died here two years ago at the age of 89, her relatives found a trove of historical research in her home office, as well as other expected writings — magazine articles, speeches, letters.
But in a bottom drawer, they found something unexpected: a brittle cache of some 150 poems, all written by Ms. MacKenzie in the 1930’s. A longtime widow with no children, Ms. MacKenzie had for some reason shut that early passion down, instead pursuing her interests in local history, geology, mountain climbing and gardening.

But her nephew and his wife, Chris and Nancy Beattie, who own a bookstore in this village in the northern Adirondacks, were struck by the poems and told a local journalist about them. The reporter, Lee Manchester, had written Ms. MacKenzie’s obituary for The Lake Placid News, a weekly, and had already decided to edit her historical papers.

“I knew I was going to have to look at them as a courtesy, but I was dreading it,” Mr. Manchester recalled. “I thought they’d be written on scented paper with a purple fountain pen.”

Then he started to read.

The carefully typewritten poems were at turns romantic and austere, expressing a near-mystical celebration of nature or exploring lost love and the creep of death. “A Sleepless Night” begins:

How long is forever?
Can it be longer than tonight?
I am a corpse with pennied eyes,
And blanched with pale moonlight.

And while many were dark, there was humor, too, in poems like “To a Man Upon Hearing Him Suck His Teeth for the 14th Time” and “Cacoethes Scribendi” (Latin for an “itch to write”), which starts:

Let the scientists sputter and gamble and guess,
Let the clergymen preach and the christians transgress,
Let the married ones quarrel and lovers caress —
I’m young
And I’ve got a new dress!

Other poems, like “Marcy Trail on a Rainy Day,” are paeans to intrepid Adirondack explorers like herself.

I have seen people hug their fireplace on days like this.
I could tell them of open shelters where the winds wail an endless song, …
I could tell them of clotted smoke rising from sultry, singing fires,
And the scent of coffee, and dripping bacon, and fresh-cut wood.
I could tell them of haughty, quiet pines and naked rocks where birds scream.

Recalling how he felt when he first read the poems, Mr. Manchester said: “I don’t have much hair, but what I do have was standing on end. I should not have been surprised because her historical prose was really lyrical and evocative.”

A year later, Mr. Manchester, who lives in nearby Jay, N.Y., sought to have the poems published. He consulted a local writer, who suggested he contact Blueline, a 25-year-old literary magazine at the State University of New York at Potsdam. Mr. Manchester sent off a dozen representative poems to the magazine’s editor, Prof. Richard Henry, and waited.

“The editor of Blueline e-mailed me back and said, ‘You know, we might be interested in seeing the whole thing,’ ” Mr. Manchester said.

Professor Henry, who teaches English, passed the poems on to the poetry editors. Although the magazine has published special sections in the past, the editors decided to publish Ms. MacKenzie’s poems as a supplement, titled simply “Collected Poetry: 1931-1937.” The softcover book was sent to the more than 400 subscribers.

In an interview by e-mail, Professor Henry said the editors felt the poems were of “sufficient quality and met the general mission of the journal,” adding that the “project grew from there.”

He cautioned that today’s reader might be put off by the rhyme schemes, now considered antiquated by many. “Nor does she use them with the knowing wink that many of the moderns did (Edna St. Vincent Millay, for example),” he wrote, “though, like Millay, she is definitely aware of the forms she uses (indeed she uses many).”

Still, Professor Henry said the collection included “some wonderful poems that work within that constraint extremely well.” One, “Frogs Sang in the Morning,” reminded him of Robert Frost. Others, like “Marcy Trail on a Rainy Day,” seem “remarkably contemporary,” he said.

How Ms. MacKenzie, who had only a high school education, came to write such sophisticated poetry is a mystery. One of five children and the daughter of a pharmacist and a hotel maid, she was born and raised in Lake Placid. She founded her school’s literary magazine, serving as its editor for two years.

It is also not known whether she ever tried to publish her poems. They were written from the ages of 17 to 23, while she was embarking on a long career as a secretary. Mr. Manchester said that after she graduated from Lake Placid High School in 1930, at 16, she took a job working for the local committee of the third Olympic Winter Games, which took place here in 1932.

After writing what were apparently her final poems in 1937, she moved to New York City for a year. But she returned to Lake Placid, where she met her husband and continued in various secretarial jobs, and later began to immerse herself in local history. In 1964, after her husband’s death, she became the official historian of North Elba, the town that includes Lake Placid. Shortly after the 1980 Olympic Games here, she was named the village historian as well.

Her nieces and nephews were proud of the many articles on local history that she had published in newspapers and magazines like Adirondack Life. A few months before her death, she published a short book of local history, with the help of Mr. and Mrs. Beattie.

A niece in California said Ms. MacKenzie had told her about the poems, though she had never seen them. But Mr. Beattie, the nephew, said: “We had no inkling. She never mentioned it.” He is convinced that his aunt, who suffered from shingles, left the poems in her desk intentionally. “We don’t know why she threw out other personal papers, but we think she wanted somebody to find this.”

After all, even in her early 20’s, Mary Landon, whose only brother died in his late teens, mused about her posthumous self, albeit tongue firmly in cheek. Her 1937 poem “Please, God, No Curlers Tonight” concludes:

When to the airy kingdom I take flight,
Far from the world of men, beyond the light,
Ah, shed no tears, but on my tombstone write:
She died with smiles — no curlers tonight!