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.