David Lanier (poetry ’94) on the Poems of Rodney Jack (poetry ’99)

David Lanier (Poetry ’94) is a retired family physician and the author of the chapbook Lost & Found, winner of the Robert Phillips Poetry Prize from the Texas Review Press.  In 2015 he established the Rodney Jack Scholarship for LGBTQ students in the Warren Wilson MFA Program, and has recently augmented his contribution so that the fund can now support two qualified candidates each semester.  The following is David’s remembrance of the late Warren Wilson MFA alum for whom the scholarship is named.  David and his husband currently live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Remembering Rodney Jack

I never got to know Rodney Jack as well as I would have liked to.  And for reasons I’ll explain later, I’ve thus far been able to read only about a dozen or so of the poems he wrote in his relatively short lifetime.  But that, for me, has been enough to convince me that he was an extraordinary person and poet.  His work first gained wide recognitionin 1999, around the time of his graduation from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, when five of his poems were published as a group in Poetry.  The magazine further honored this set of poems by awarding Rodney the prestigious Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize later that year.  Here is one of those poems, written soon after he found out that he was HIV positive:

After The Diagnosis

They erected a chainlink fence around

                                    Peachtree Mortgage & Loan,

                                    the building I once climbed

                                    by way of a drainpipe and a tree-of-heaven

                                    to the hot tar top, closer to a box maple’s

                                    topmost bejeweled branches — laden with samaras.

                                    Stomping through a plush rug

                                    of creeper and fallen sourwood flowers, I know

                                    that I’m alive — as Darwin described it:

                                    greedily hungry, fit to survive —

                                    not the least bit concerned with fences.

                                    I scale the chainlink, then the building,

                                    sit on the roof dreaming

                                    of my future house:  vaulted ceilings,

                                    walls mostly windows looking out to a yard

                                    lush with royal paulownia, black locust,

                                    angel hair also known as mimosa —

                                    those trees like weeds that grow where they can,

                                    beside a dumpster, gutter, punched through

                                    a sidewalk crack, whose numbers

                                    are legion and whose flowers are proud,

                                    like the sourwood lilies I tread on my way home.

I keep coming back to this poem because it captures so well the essence of the Rodney Jack I knew.  Two things in particular haunt me about this poem.  The first is the poet’s remarkable restraint.  Since the title tells us that the poem’s narrator has recently received some unfortunate, if not devastating, news about his health, we might expect the reaction to be somewhere between despair, agitation and hysterical wailing. Instead, he chooses to describe for us, in a calm, contained way, a day of boy-like climbing over vines and chainlink fence, up a drainpipe, to a rooftop retreat for a moment’s reverie among the lushness of nature.  The only indication we get that strong emotion may be pent up or smoldering beneath the poem’s smooth surface comes in the second stanza when the familiar feel of nature beneath his feet assures the narrator that he is not only alive but “fit to survive.”  With that thought in mind, the following third and fourth stanzas — all one sentence — seem to come rushing out of him like a controlled sigh or a song:  intake of breath before the colon, followed by an extended exhalation that’s syntactically complex and saturated with detail.  It sounds to me almost like a wishful prayer or a sung ode to survival.  The other haunting characteristic of the poem is its pervasive sense of, not loneliness, but aloneness, separateness.  The narrator has literally been fenced out, and although he claims to be “not the least bit concerned with fences,” he’s nonetheless forced to see the world from the other side.  At what must be a very difficult time in his life, the narrator has escaped to an out-of-way place where he chooses to look neither inward nor to others for solace.  Instead, he looks outat the comforting beauty of the natural world that alone feels welcoming.

It seems to me a safe bet that this poem — like all of Rodney’s poems I’ve read — is faithfully autobiographical.  He apparently was neither interested in, nor inclined to, create much (if any) distance between himself and the narrators of his poems. The Rodney I knew (and especially when I first met him) was very much like the guarded, seemingly detached narrator of this poem.  He viewed himself as an outsider who needed to protect himself, and so seemed able to trust almost no one.  That Rodney became like that is hardly surprising when we look at the circumstances of his life.  He was an African-American man born into the deep South.  His father split when he was eight or nine, and so for most of his early years Rodney and his brother were raised by a single parent.  His relationship with his mother, who was Pentecostal and emotionally troubled, was (I’m told) tempestuous.  By the time he was an adolescent, Rodney had developed a sense of alienation and of being unacceptable to the people around him.  Those feelings increased exponentially when his homosexuality became known to himself and others.  During the Gulf War he enlisted in the Navy and served for six years on the USS Missouri.  While working in close quarters with other sailors during a time that predated even the military’s don’t-ask/don’t-tell policy (when any display of homosexual behavior could result in an immediate and dishonorable discharge), Rodney must have gotten plenty of practice hiding his sexual identity and repressing any non-heteronormative feelings.  After his discharge from the Navy, however, Rodney’s life seemed to improve.  He became serious about writing poetry and soon found out that others also took his writing seriously when he was accepted into the Warren Wilson MFA Program and awarded a Holden Minority Scholarship.

Rodney once told me that he began, some weeks after entering the Warren Wilson program, to find it easier to open up with his fellow students, especially when the discussions were about poetry and not about more personal matters.  And yet, as he later confided to me, the only person he truly came to trust was one of his mentors, Ellen Bryant Voigt.  Even that relationship was complicated, as is apparent in Ellen’s poem “Lost Boy,” written about Rodney and included in her collection Headwaters.  In this poem, Ellen acknowledges that she became for Rodney a sort of surrogate mother, as much interested in his personal well-being as in his poetry.  In an apparent display of this maternal concern, Ellen gave me a call in 2001, a year or two after Rodney had received his MFA.  Despite the fact that Rodney was beginning to win awards and have his poems published, Ellen worried that he was ignoring his health — he was not taking his HIV medications regularly, claiming that he couldn’t afford them, and was not in general taking care of himself.  He didn’t trust his doctors, Ellen said.  She wondered if he might not relate better to me, in that I was a gay physician who regularly cared for HIV-infected patients in addition to the fact that I was also a Warren Wilson alum who (like Rodney) had worked with, and developed a close relationship with, Ellen.  So I gave Rodney a call.  During our initial awkward conversation, Rodney seemed to answer my questions and respond to my medically-related suggestions more out of politeness than any real interest in what I had to say.  However, once the talk shifted to poetry, he sounded much more alive and at ease. Toward the end of our talk he suggested that we meet in D.C., where I was living at the time.  Since he was scheduled to have a two-hour layover on his flight home from Bread Loaf, we agreed to meet in the lobby of D.C.’s National Airport.  It was the first (and, as it turned out, the only) time we ever met in person.  The meeting ended up being briefer than anticipated since Rodney’s incoming flight to D.C. had been delayed.  I can’t exactly remember all that we talked about, other than Bread Loaf, but I recall how his initial caution and suspicion upon first shaking my hand gradually melted away such that we gave each other a hug before he had to run to catch his flight.  We spoke on the phone a few times after that, mainly to catch up on our respective lives and to discuss the poetry we were writing.

While the knowledge that he was HIV-infected undoubtedly contributed to Rodney’s persistent sense of shamefulness and personal unworthiness, the disease and its treatment became, paradoxically, a significant force that pushed him toward being, however reluctantly, more open and explicit about his health and certain details about his personal life in the poems he wrote. This opening-up is evident in another of the poems in the group of five originally published in Poetry.  It focuses on an HIV medication Rodney was taking — the first protease inhibitor available on the market — which proved to be highly effective in controlling the disease but carried with it significant side effects.


                                    The medicine feels like acid inside me

                                    eating away the virus,

                                    and I know I never would have written that down

                                    if I had waited until I said Now,

                                    now I will write that poem about pain,

                                    and not about skipping

                                    through a forest-primeval, along the rivulet,

                                    ignoring the garbage in the stream,

                                    trash tangled in birch roots — bones half buried

                                    in the water and the bank.

                                    As mucus engulfs the ulcerous membranes

                                    and the pain subsides to tolerable,

                                    I dream a law in physics, a body

                                    set in motion that nothing can stop again.

                                    No need then to add that final stanza,

                                    the image of a young man afraid, writing

                                    this poem, wanting to erase what he said

                                    that has to stay.       

What’s remarkable about this poem is how the poet’s internal conflict is played out openly.  It begins with a fairly dramatic statement which we quickly realize must be, for the narrator, some sort of confession in that he then admits to the difficulty he’s had in bringing himself to write it.  Instead of composing another nature poem that is blind to the trash at his feet, he finds himself candidly addressing the fearful (and, for him it seems, shameful) truth that his life is now filled with disease and pain.  When I read this poem I’m suddenly reminded of Rodney’s kinship with Gerard Manley Hopkins, the nineteenth century poet and Jesuit priest. While Hopkins’ poetry is nothing at all like Rodney’s, it’s obvious that he also knew a thing or two about internal conflict.  While certain historians might argue with me, I have no doubt that Hopkins, like Rodney, was homosexual.  To realize that fact, one only needs to read a few of Hopkins’ homoerotic poems in which the desired male form is carefully disguised as, or transformed into, the body of Christ.  Hopkins, like Rodney, always viewed himself as an outsider.  Despite having friends and being a respected member of both a loving family and a religious order, Hopkins felt somehow apart from all of them: “To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life/ Among strangers.”  Hopkins’s tortured attempts to deal with his secret desires and emotions — all of which were forbidden by both the church and Victorian society and so to his mind a moral and spiritual disease — bubble up much closer to the surface of his poems than we see occur in most of Rodney’s poems.  It’s apparent in the clotted diction and in the condensed rhythms of almost all of Hopkins’ lines.  And yet it was the agony he endured for so long that ultimately pushed him — as it did Rodney — to address his pain/illness directly in poems. Hopkins opens one of his extraordinary “terrible sonnets,” written late in his life, by laying it all out:  “No worst, there is none.  Pitched past pitch of grief,/ More pangs will, schooled at fore pangs, wilder wring.”  While Rodney admits in this poem only to somatic pain, I have no doubt that his pain was compounded with another type of ache not unrelated to the spiritual/existential pain Hopkins was feeling.  It’s telling that both Rodney and Hopkins describe feeling their pain in the same body part:  the gut.  After taking his medicine, Rodney feels it “eating away” at his insides.  Hopkins describes it this way:  “I am gall. I am heartburn.” 

The very heart of Rodney’s poem, however, is the poet/narrator’s angst over whether he has, by making a public statement about his suffering and its cause, crossed a line he thinks (or once thought) should not be crossed.  In naming the specific medicinehe’s taking, he’s let out of the bag the fact that he personally is HIV infected and most readers will therefore assume he’s gay.  Now that he’s done it, what has he “set in motion”? Should he erase the words he’s written or let them stay?  This could be, in part, a question of poetic taste.  Does potentially embarrassing subject matter ever belong in a poem? More likely, however, we are witnessing the poet’s reluctance to violate his own privacy, to go against his natural instinct toward poetic reticence.   These are the same sort of questions that I suspect Elizabeth Bishop, another of his LGBTQ poet predecessors, once considered or struggled with.  Much has been written about the restraint evident in almost all of her poetry.  While this too may have been in part an issue of poetic taste, we must wonder if there weren’t things she also was purposefully holding back.  When she was young, her mother was institutionalized for mental illness; and of course, Bishop was also a lesbian.  Neither of these facts of her life is stated either explicitly or implicitly anywhere in her poetry.  The one poem in which she comes closest to being open about her internal conflict, however, is the famous “One Art.”  The poem begins by relating some minor losses in her life, which she claims never amounted to much.  But when she finally gets around to discussing the loss of the “you” that the poem is addressing — her lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, who committed suicide — there is no mistaking the ache in her description of Lota’s “joking voice, a gesture I love.”  And yet Bishop still wants to hold back, is reluctant to address the truth that, unlike other losses, this one was indeed a disaster.  When Rodney says “now I will write that poem about pain,” it seems to echo Bishop ordering herself in her poem’s final line to go ahead and (“Writeit!)”.  Rodney emphasizes his intention by putting the words in italics; Bishop’s command to herself is likewise in italics, but even this she subordinates by putting it in parentheses. 

By 2008, the pain Rodney must have been feeling daily from his disease and its treatment had not subsided.  Moreover, he was becoming increasingly depressed, despondent and isolated. Despite all the early success of getting individual poems published in distinguished magazines — Ploughshares, Agni, Poetry —he had less luck when he submitted a full-length manuscript of his poetry.  While the manuscript was named a finalist for the 2004 Walt Whitman first book award, it was not selected as an award winner.  For Rodney this was a bitter disappointment, and afterwards he seemed to withdraw further. He quit sending his work out for publication.  One day, in early August, 2008, he erased all the poems and drafts contained on the hard drive of his computer.  He then committed suicide.  Luckily, Rodney’s partner Wayne Johns had regularly backed up his and Rodney’s computers and so was able to recover most, if not all, of the poems Rodney wrote. Some time after getting over the shock and grief surrounding Rodney’s death, Wayne — who is himself an accomplished poet and is currently an associate professor of English at Greensboro College — was assisted and encouraged by New York poet Cate Marvin (who Rodney had gotten to know at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference) to assemble a manuscript of selected poems from Rodney’s files.  Sarabande Press readily accepted the manuscript and the book was scheduled to be published on Valentine’s Day in 2012.  

However, more trouble lay ahead.  Prior to the book’s publication, a Sarabande lawyer began to question whether their company had the legal authority to publish in that, prior to his death, Rodney had failed to name a literary executor who could provide formal permission.  Although Wayne Johns had been Rodney’s long-time partner, he did not qualify in the eyes of the law as Rodney’s next of kin.  Instead, it was up to Rodney’s family to provide written permission. When contacted, the family not only refused (for reasons not specified) to give their permission, but in fact had their own lawyer send a certified letter to Sarabande’s managing editor aggressively threatening to sue the company for large sums of money should it proceed with publication.  Perhaps understandably, this small non-profit company immediately pulled the plug on publishing the book.  Wayne, Cate, Ellen and I then sought advice from leading legal firms that specialize in copyright and intellectual property law, searching for a way, any way, to avoid the impasse.  All sources independently confirmed that, at that point, any company who printed the manuscript without the family’s written permission would be exposing itself to major legal damages.  So the book of Rodney’s poems remains unpublished.  I spoke with Wayne Johns recently who confirmed that even now, over seven years later, the legal threat has not gone away and the manuscript continues to be radioactive to potential publishers.  The possibility that this manuscript or any other manuscript of Rodney’s work will ever be published seems woefully remote.  The title of the almost published book is Machine of Love and Grace: Selected Poems of Rodney Jack.  If you go to Amazon’s website, you will find that the book is still being advertised there with a publication date of 2/14/2012.  Eerily, the image on the cover of the book is of a string sculpture picturing the hazy, striated, ghostlike image of a man’s torso.  He seems to be disappearing.  Beside the picture is printed:  “Currently unavailable.”

Since Rodney died, much social progress has been achieved in the U.S. Three months after his death, an African-American man was elected President, and three years after that, homosexuals were allowed to serve openly in the U.S. military.  Seven years after his death, DOMA, the law that prohibited same-sex marriage was struck down by the Supreme Court.  At times I think:  if onlyRodney could have lived to see an African-American President, perhaps he might have begun to feel safer, less marginalized;  if onlyhe could have married his partner, one or more volumes of his amazing poetry might by now be securely in the hands of readers everywhere.  But then I remind myself that there’s much to celebrate.  Whether or not it’s related to greater candor as a result of the progress that’s been made in advancing LGBTQ civil rights in this country, we’ve recently seen a large upswing in the number of emerging poets who openly identify as LGBTQ.  Some write, as did Rodney and his predecessors Hopkins and Bishop, with restraint and without calling obvious attention to their sexual preference or gender identity while still reflecting a queer sensibility in their writing. Others (in the tradition of Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara) are bursting out of the closet with poetry that’s openly erotic, fearlessly announcing that they have nothing at all to hide or disguise. The majority, I suspect, find themselves somewhere in-between.  But like all emerging poets, those who happen to be LGBTQ need to be nurtured, and most still need to acquire the technical skills necessary to maximize the quality of their writing.  Such support and guidance are available in MFA programs.  It is my intention that the Rodney Jack Scholarship provide financial assistance for talented LGBTQ students who are in need and who choose to attend Warren Wilson’s MFA Program.  We need to assure that their voices, instead of being tragically censored, can mature and be heard widely.