I put a lot of time and thought into this panel presentation—and it is such a paradox, the more I was thinking and writing, the more I cut from the text. It is because I care so much and this is so meaningful for me. Words don’t do justice to my feelings.
Also I get a little jittery because of the egocentrism and self-referencing of so many writers. I’m not above it—my first stop is often speaking of my own experiences. But with Jay Meek, I want to define something that runs exactly counter to that. He had the most remarkable use of the first person pronoun that you will encounter in contemporary poetry. He is both at the center of his poems and standing outside them at the same time. He saw the self of narration, and maybe even the “self” of existence, as somewhat alien at all times. Jay was a stranger at home, and he was at home in foreign places. And the other way around too.
Let me show you what I mean. His poem “Counting the Birds at Christmas” has four parts—and is set in a couple of different places in the North Dakota landscape. If you know North Dakota, you know this landscape can be stark and filled with nothingness. One of the sections of the poem shifts the focus from the external landscape to the internal, and here is a place with that amazing use of the I pronoun.
How can I account for the years I have failed myself,
the times I have not acted out of passion,
but out of some control I imposed upon my passion,
as if I feared what I wanted from my life.
Some days I feel ashamed of myself, even at my age.
Walking alone, I hunch my shoulders together
as if I wore great white wings,
scapulars I might pull around myself for comfort.
Other days, I have pulled feathers from my skin,
the charred white feathers of a goose,
white feathers, blue feathers, sad and exotic feathers
I have won from years of wandering.
(“Counting the Birds at Christmas” Headlands: New and Selected Poems. Carnegie Mellon)
It’s Jay’s way of being in the in-between—like he is on two plains at once, in the actual world and also moving across time. The self-knowledge and intellect packed into the perspective amaze me (I have searched for better words in this writing though find I can only say it like this, just telling the truth), and I find the humility of his poetry to be absolutely fascinating and often very very moving.
I found that same humility in Jay himself. I wanted to take some pleasure today in sharing some personal details about him. There are many I can think of, but mainly what stays with me is how you’d find him in his office looking out the window. Standing there with his hands clasped behind his back. Like at any moment he was going to pick up a telescope and look out over an ocean on the university’s quad. Really, it was remarkable. Such presence he had. Jay would get really agitated and pissed off at the petty fighting that can happen on a campus, especially at department meetings, but that really wasn’t him—he was most himself looking out that window.
Also, I wanted to mention his handwriting. It was a printing style with a slight right lean. It was really pretty, like sketching—and if you looked at a whole paragraph it was uniform with equal spaces and very straight lines, and it made me think of train tracks. And you might already know something about Jay’s devotion to trains, which connected right to his soul. If you don’t know that, all you have to do is read the poems, especially the book Trains in Winter.
The last aspect I’d like to talk about is Jay’s incredible patience. I can’t imagine a more kind and generous respondent. He was straightforward too—if he thought a poem really wasn’t going to work, he’d find a sideways way of telling you that. I remember once, in response to a really crappy autobiographical thing I was writing about my Catholic upbringing—where I was just trying way way too much and too hard, he told me he had a great idea. He said I should take it down to the Castle Church. And that I should nail it to the door.
Jay’s patience and mentoring went far beyond the page. It was like he was waiting for me to make my own discoveries and put faith in those discoveries. He had a way of guiding that, which was very abstract and maybe even kind of magical. Again, it’s hard to describe. And I’m not the only former student to describe him as a ship’s captain. That was the spirit he projected.
I’d like to read my favorite passage from Jay’s work. It exemplifies what I valued back when I worked with him and what I will always value, and always learn from. How he isolated moments of experience or an image, and then somehow infused them with feeling and philosophy and understanding and intelligence.
"I have always believed my life to be a gift, no less than your own, and that we choose our acts because we care for the exquisite movement that is always passing through us, if only we awake to it. We live as if each day brought a new turn, when we might stop to watch the polar bear at the zoo swim in his grand style, or when we might read a menu posted outside a restaurant in the old quarter, and it will become important, like a vase of forsythia that holds the greater day in place. We make those moments happen, not by denying our lives but by inhabiting them fully."
(The Memphis Letters, p. 75)
And one more thing. I can’t help but hear this line as a directive. It’s also from The Memphis Letters, where our speaker is opening his soul up in letters. [He says most simply and directly, as though he could picture us here now: "know that I am with you, more presumptuous than church bells, and no less spirited than the morning air. From my childhood, whatever rivers I have walked beside, whatever stones I skipped toward the far bank, the waters of my life flow to this day.
Say of me: He liked baseball. And he liked to ride trains."
(The Memphis Letters, p. 105)