A Special Welcome to Antioch’s New President, Jane Fernandes, Who Believes in ‘Eating Poetry’
Dedicated to Jane Fernandes
Watercolor on canvas, 12 X 10, 2021
Last week Maureen Lynch, Antioch College Board Chair, called me with a true “breaking news alert”. She told me—without the Wolf Blitzer affect—that the College’s trustees had elected Dr. Jane Fernandes to be the new president of Antioch, thus concluding a six month plus search with wonderful success.
By now, if you are in any way connected to the College you would have read about this great result and learned something of the exceptional qualifications and experience Dr. Fernandes brings to the job. (In case you haven’t, follow this link to the announcement on the Antioch website.)
Among the many reasons I am celebrating Jane—she told me I could call her Jane, by the way—and her appointment to lead Antioch is her high regard, deep knowledge and firsthand engagement with the incantatory world of poetry. From where I stand (and have stood) reading, writing and, as we shall see, even eating poetry, affords us all, but especially college presidents, a renewing pool of human insight and possibility. This lends Jane additional super powers, which I have no doubt she will draw upon in service to the Antioch community and the wider world, just as she did at Guilford College and just as she has done routinely for each of the communities she has served professionally and personally.
Jane Fernandes is precisely the right person to pilot Antioch College. I am more than confident about such a forecast because, you may remember, I live in the future. Technically, it is only a time zone advantage, but nevertheless, Malaysia is twelve hours ahead of Yellow Springs, and being much closer to the equator, ought to give more gravitational pull to my pronouncements. Believe it or not. But try to keep up, because there is a line of thought that connects our new poet president to Antioch that you may not have dreamed.
Several years ago, I learned through another phone call that my maternal grandmother, Minerva Evelyn Stine, was the daughter of Mary and David Stein, making my mother, me and my siblings all Jewish. How this came to be and why I learned about it by phone, is a story for another time. You may want to know, however, that it was all confirmed by a DNA test and further substantiated by a visit to the graves of my maternal great, great grandparents in the small, well-kept Hebrew cemetery in Norfolk, Virginia, accompanied by a second cousin, a couple of times removed, who, incidentally, looks a lot like my grandmother Minerva.
Since receiving this news, my lines of thinking have followed any number of paths, mostly about my great grandmother, Mary, who early in her marriage was separated from her husband, David Stein. Their three older children remained with their father, while their youngest child, my grandmother, remained with her mother. Who or what could have caused such a break? More recently though, I’ve been thinking about my great grandfather, David, who grew up in Baltimore, where I grew up (and who went to the same high school as my Irish Catholic father). I had learned very little about David Stein other than receiving an image from the local newspaper that gave his occupation as a commercial representative with an address on a street that no longer has residential buildings.
I googled the address and recognized the location from surrounding landmarks, which I had passed dozens of times during my childhood with my family, none of us mindful of the significance. I began to think that each of these trips past the place where David Stein had lived was like the strandlines left by oceans, lakes and rivers on their shores; the sweeping action of waves and tides, their residues impermanent yet imaginable and lightly traceable in the mind. The fact that the real strandlines of these places often left the most unpleasant, if biologically interesting, environments for walking or laying out beach towels, only enlivened the metaphor of overlapping lives, erasure, and storm-churned discovery.
It occurred to me (maybe wildly) that while there are many Steins in Baltimore, perhaps David was distantly connected to a famous Stein, like Gertrude, who was from Pittsburgh, where the great poet Gerald Stein is alive (and I hope still well). A Lines of Thinking piece about Gertrude and Gerald? A poem of strandlines? And, because my mind works through lateral associations of ideas and plays on words, what about a long overdue piece on Antioch’s own, Mark Strand? A plan for the August LoT was starting to form, you see, when Maureen called with the good news about Jane.
Mark Strand, Antioch class of 1957, was a most extraordinary poet (and by the telling of his classmates and many who came to know his body of work, a true Antiochian of his vintage). Oddly, some might think, he left Antioch for Yale to study painting with the iconic educator and colorist Josef Albers. But after completing his MFA, he decided to move from painting to poetry and thus began his long career as one of the nation’s and world’s most productive and gifted writers. The author or editor of more than forty books and the winner of nearly all the top awards for writing, Mark was appointed US poet laureate in 1990. He received a Pulitzer in 1999 for Blizzard of One. Mark was a generous teacher of poetry and literature (something he has in common with our new president as well).
Settling on a small selection of Mark Strand poems is no easy task. I share five that I have returned to frequently over the years; poems that enfold me within them, that startle me with their original language, that bring me to laughter often and tears as well. I have incorporated the chosen works into a watercolor study, “Strandlines,” an image, which is shown above or below or somewhere in the vicinity of these words. I dedicate this small work to Jane (and will hand it over when I can), a “poetry eating” comrade, to whom I am sure, Mark Strand extends a special greeting and membership to his rare club.
Keeping Things Whole
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
* * *
(for Robert Penn Warren)
It shines in the garden,
in the white foliage of the chestnut tree,
in the brim of my father’s hat
as he walks on the gravel.
In the garden suspended in time
my mother sits in a redwood chair:
light fills the sky,
the folds of her dress,
the roses tangled beside her.
And when my father bends
to whisper in her ear,
when they rise to leave
and the swallows dart
and the moon and stars
have drifted off together, it shines.
Even as you lean over this page,
late and alone, it shines: even now
in the moment before it disappears.
* * *
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.
The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.
Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.
She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.
* * *
(for Nolan Miller)
For us, too, there was a wish to possess
Something beyond the world we knew, beyond ourselves,
Beyond our power to imagine, something nevertheless
In which we might see ourselves; and this desire
Came always in passing, in waning light, and in such cold
That ice on the valley’s lakes cracked and rolled,
And blowing snow covered what earth we saw,
And scenes from the past, when they surfaced again,
Looked not as they had, but ghostly and white
Among false curves and hidden erasures;
And never once did we feel we were close
Until the night wind said, “Why do this,
Especially now? Go back to the place you belong;”
And there appeared, with its windows glowing, small,
In the distance, in the frozen reaches, a cabin;
And we stood before it, amazed at its being there,
And would have gone forward and opened the door,
And stepped into the glow and warmed ourselves there,
But that it was ours by not being ours,
And should remain empty. That was the idea.
* * *
The New Poetry Handbook
1 If a man understands a poem,
he shall have troubles.
2 If a man lives with a poem,
he shall die lonely.
3 If a man lives with two poems,
he shall be unfaithful to one.
4 If a man conceives of a poem,
he shall have one less child.
5 If a man conceives of two poems,
he shall have two children less.
6 If a man wears a crown on his head as he writes,
he shall be found out.
7 If a man wears no crown on his head as he writes,
he shall deceive no one but himself.
8 If a man gets angry at a poem,
he shall be scorned by men.
9 If a man continues to be angry at a poem,
he shall be scorned by women.
10 If a man publicly denounces poetry,
his shoes will fill with urine.
11 If a man gives up poetry for power,
he shall have lots of power.
12 If a man brags about his poems,
he shall be loved by fools.
13 If a man brags about his poems and loves fools,
he shall write no more.
14 If a man craves attention because of his poems,
he shall be like a jackass in moonlight.
15 If a man writes a poem and praises the poem of a fellow,
he shall have a beautiful mistress.
16 If a man writes a poem and praises the poem of a fellow overly,
he shall drive his mistress away.
17 If a man claims the poem of another,
his heart shall double in size.
18 If a man lets his poems go naked,
he shall fear death.
19 If a man fears death,
he shall be saved by his poems.
20 If a man does not fear death,
he may or may not be saved by his poems.
21 If a man finishes a poem,
he shall bathe in the blank wake of his passion
and be kissed by white paper.
* * *
Addendum from us all:
Welcome to Antioch, Jane Fernandes.
About Lines of Thinking
Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Emeritus Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.