I had the extreme pleasure of encountering Jeff Daniel Marion at the 2013 Southern Festival of Books a few weeks ago. Not only was I able to hear him read on a panel for the newly published Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol. 6: Tennessee, but I was also able to meet the poet because my literature-loving mother was with me, and Marion was her college advisor and English professor some 20 years ago. This was a lovely moment to witness as student and teacher were reunited after so many years; mother shared of how her passion for literature was still alive today in her vocation as an English teacher, and in me, in my immense love of poetry. After the reading, I looked behind me as we all left the hall, and my professor (Jeff Hardin) was walking alongside my mother’s professor, while she and I walked ahead, side by side. It was one of those moments when you can see the whole of the circle, and all you can do is smile and offer up your grateful heart.
When Jesse Graves introduced Jeff Daniel Marion at the SoFest reading, he said, “Tennessee poetry in the last 30 years has funneled through the writing and person of Danny Marion.” In light of Marion’s many accomplishments and wide-spread influence, Graves is spot on. Marion has published nine poem books, four chapbooks, and one children’s book. His latest book, Letters To The Dead: A Memoir, was released earlier this year. An East Tennessee native, Marion settled at Carson-Newman College as their poet-in-residence and English professor for more than 35 years. Marion lives with his lovely poet-wife, Linda Parsons Marion, in Knoxville. Today’s feature comes from Marion’s poetry collection, Letters Home, published in October 2001.
SIGN, SOUTH PACIFIC, 1943
Weeks at sea and no mountains
rose to break that endless stretch
of horizon, blue so deep
a man could lose himself, drift
of cloud sailing wherever
wind wished. O for the anchor
of home where markers gripped true
ground. On the 37th day
land sighted, Uncle Gene sprawled
on the beach of some unnamed
island, no sign of habitation
anywhere until he saw,
nailed to the trunk of a palm
tree, an arrow plank with words
in bold: See Rock City, 5000 miles.
There rose from that vast expanse
of sea the pastures of East
Tennessee, painted barns and
boundary trees, rocks tilled up
in spring plowing: the only
war souvenir he carried
back, this memory, like a
compass left by an unknown
sailor on a nameless isle
whose needle pointed to home.
I seem to choose poems that are feature clear and straight forward language more often than not. But I believe that this sort of writing is one of the best vehicles for projecting the voice of the poet, and, at the same time, presenting the reader space to attach their own sentiment to the piece. After reading Marion’s poems, I noticed that imagery is frequently the focal point in his works, with vivid descriptions such as–“blue so deep/ a man could lose himself”– pointedly woven throughout the narrative creating an excellent balance of lyric and color. This short tale of the narrator’s Uncle Gary surrounded by the vastness of the South Pacific and suffering from homesickness is one that many of us may have heard before. But it’s Gary’s “anchor of home,” that causes him to envision a Rock City sign echoing of his distant Tennessee–complete with the stretches of fields and “painted barns.” My heart smiled when I found this poem and remembered my own great-grandfather who fought in the Pacific arena during WWII as a very young man. Same time frame, same place, and same longing for earthy Tennessee. Papa George once told me that when he finally made the 5000-mile journey back and arrived at the Nashville train station in the dark of the early morning, he sat out on the city street and said, “I’m home.”
For more reading about the venerable Jeff Daniel Marion, take some time to read the moving homage Jesse Graves wrote for his friend that Chapter 16 featured recently. For an interview, poems featured by the Poetry Foundation, a new poem from Letters To The Dead: A Memoir, and four Marion poetry collections at Celtic Cat Publishing click the appropriate links.