Mark Jarman: Devotional Poetry

A couple of years ago, poet, translator, and critic Kimberly Johnson organized a conference at Brigham Young University on Devotional Poetry. Poet Susan Howe suggested that Kimberly invite me to introduce their keynote speaker, Mark Jarman, who had been a colleague of mine at Vanderbilt University. I told Kimberly that some of the members of the English faculty might not and members of the administration certainly would not welcome my presence on campus. She said that didn’t matter to her and so I agreed. Mark didn’t make it to the conference, delayed, if memory serves, by a snowstorm that closed the Nashville airport.


This morning, looking through a notebook, I found notes written for the introduction:

. . . Mark Jarman, Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt University.

. . . Books include those in the photo and Unholy Sonnets and Questions for Ecclesiastes.

. . . When I told the Vanderbilt Dean of Arts and Sciences I was going to take the job in Utah after he had awarded tenure, he asked if a higher salary would have kept me at Vanderbilt. I miss the scent of sage, I answered, and I want to contribute to the education of the next generation of my fellow Mormons. Mark was one of the few who understood that a person could miss a scent — of sage, or of Pacific saltwater in his case.

. . . I first experienced Mark as a religious person while back-country skiing with him and Susan Howe in Utah during a previous visit to BYU. Inexperienced, and burdened by the inferior equipment I supplied for him, Mark let loose a rich string of religious words  to express his frustration.

. . . In the mid-1990’s when I was writing my way through the death of my brother John of AIDS, when I was deciding to leave BYU and the LDS Church out of solidarity with John, I travelled up the California coast from San Diego where John had worked as a chef. I carried Mark’s book Iris the way Iris carries the Selected Poems of Robinson Jeffers. Iris accompanied me as I thought about family and fraternity, about loss and survival, and it guided me to Jeffers’ Tor House and Hawk Tower where I, like Iris, found the flowering iris in the garden a more productive metaphor for my life than the phallic and patriarchal towers built by the inheritors of the religious tradition that had, for better and worse, been the foundation of my identity.

In retrospect, divine providence may have had a hand in the Nashville snowstorm.


About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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