Jeff Daniel Marion: Legendary

IMG_0681I 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.


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.

Why We Share Our Words

img 213The Tennessee Poetry Journal Credo circa 1967.

When I read Jeff Daniel Marion’s introduction in The Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol. 6: Tennessee and discovered this declaration by the Tennessee Poetry Journal, it gave me a little more spirit and resolution for this project. In addition, I’ve never been so proud to be a Tennessean as I was following my time at the Southern Festival of Books last weekend. For I am more than pleased to hail from the same state as Jim Clark, Jesse Graves, Amy Wright, Kory Wells, Jeff Hardin, Linda and Jeff Daniel Marion, TJ Jarrett, William Wright, James Cherry, and many more talented individuals. And indeed, I am privileged to be a part of the beauty and richness of history that Tennessee has to offer its inhabitants and passers-by.

“It would be a shame to live most of your life here thinking it’s ‘just’ a place.”

 {my adaptation of a quote by author Matt Guinn.}


John Bensko: Perceptive Heart

IMG_1916I am quickly finding that the most common thread among contemporary poets, but especially our southern ones, is their potent sense of place that they champion, and John Bensko is no exception. This poet has resided in many southern states before calling Tennessee his home, and he has particularly highlighted his Alabama birthplace through his book Iron City: PoemsWith an impressive string of degrees, teaching positions at Rhodes College and the University of Alicante, Spain as a Fulbright Professor, and celebrations such as the Yale Younger Poet Series winner for his book Green Soldiers, I am pleased to feature John Bensko’s poem found in my spanking new copy of The Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol. 6: Tennessee.  

A Broken Ode to Snow

A winter day cannot avoid its snow.

Can I accept that I do not belong to myself?


On the street at night a flurry of shadows falls

across the light, Can I think that I will not be?


My feet leave impressions

that the snow itself cannot remove.


Things melt. Hair grows gray, then white.

Disappearing, can I think those I love will be gone too?


I love snow, when it falls fast and thick,

when the wind takes it and throws it up against itself.


To explain me to me. To know

exactly what I am, and am not.


Snow does not worry, does not toil.

Its only order is to fall and deepen.


When we unbecome ourselves, when we melt

in moments we cannot bear, who do we become?


I like to watch the snow melting leave the footprints. The icy

remainders where I’ve gone down the walk are the last to go.


People like to speak of the soul, and the soul’s awakening.

It drifts, it rises, and falls, it deepens.


Watching at night, I wonder how thick it will be by morning.

In the day, I hope it won’t stop before night.


Bensko’s ode to snow is accompanied with an inescapable chill that your body and your mind cannot seem to shake long after you’ve read the piece and shut the book. His simple language, quiet repetition, and drivingly introspective questions build throughout the poem just like piles of its cold, white subject matter. Bensko starts the poem by reminding his readers that just as a “winter day cannot avoid its snow,” one cannot necessarily escape the heavy thoughts of personal existence during one’s life of many seasons. In a steady pattern of alternating between descriptions of snow to asking questions about the soul’s transience—“things melt”—, Bensko beautifully crafts this connectedness. But he also contrasts the lightness of the snow, saying that it “does not worry, does not toil,” with the weightier matters of the soul –though they both “fall and deepen.” Three-quarters of the way through the poem, the eighth couplet snagged at my spirit: “When we unbecome ourselves, when we melt/ in moments we cannot bear, who do we become?” Each of us knows those instances where we helplessly dissolve into our circumstances, but I don’t think I’m ready to answer Benkso’s final question. Yet, here’s to continuing to ask myself the heavier questions and learning to live in gratitude, no matter what season my soul finds itself.

To read more of John Bensko’s work, invest in a copy of Vol. 6 of The Southern Poetry Anthology: Tennessee, or any of his books: Green Soliders, The Waterman’s Children, The Iron City: Poems. And for some insight into his poetic practices and thoughts, click on Poetry Net’s feature of Bensko.