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Jackson Wheeler

Jackson Wheeler

Jackson Wheeler is the author of two collections: Swimming Past Iceland (Mille Grazie Press, 1993) and A Near Country: Poems of Loss (Solo Press, 1999) with Glenna Luschei and David Oliveira. He co-edited SOLO: A Journal of Poetry for 10 years.

Carolyn: Scattered Memories After 40 Years Of Friendship

In the early 1990s, the late Margaret "Peggy" Rabb and I undertook to write an essay about Carolyn as an instructor. We were in her Honors Seminar at UNC-Chapel Hill in the early 70s and were now casting back some twenty years at that time. What we did remember were Carolyn's rules for writing, declared with great fervor in seminar, especially if the rule had been violated in some manner. Carolyn was known to break some of her own rules; what she did not break was her loyalty to her students once friendships had formed. Peggy and I noted that Carolyn had provided us with the password we would need in the adult world of poetry. The word was "Friend".

Carolyn had a knack for making one feel quite at home and ill at ease at the same time. I recall being introduced to Mr. Edmund Keeley, one of the eminent translators of C. Cavafy, one evening at Carolyn's home on Franklin St. She insisted that I read him a translation of a Neruda poem I was working on at the time. I believe the poem was "Letter to Miguel Otero Silva, Caracas."

Mr. Keeley, while not effusive, did inscribe in my copy of Cavafy a comment about having a sudden reawakened interest in Neruda based on my translation. Carolyn was that sort of teacher; not only one who encouraged, but one who created opportunities for students to get feedback from other notable writers. She did so as though it was the most natural thing in the world to do; as though everyone did it.

I was in the process of discovering my sexual identity in the early 70s and feared Carolyn would disapprove. I did not "come out" to Carolyn until 1984 when my partner Yusef Mowad died, suddenly; a suicide. I wrote Carolyn and she promptly wrote back and called me. In her letter to me she wrote, "To be in love is to be vulnerable to pain; but who would live without love?"

Whatever fears I harbored dissolved. There are other memories of Carolyn as well, sitting in animated conversation with Reynolds Price, Daphne Athas and others. The time we first met when I was summoned to her house for an interview about the Honors Seminar. "Good," she said when she opened the door, "you're on time, Robert Kirkpatrick has shown me your work."

Or the autumn afternoon, cold and damp, when she told me to build a fire in the fireplace because Daphne was coming over. Daphne Athas arrived just as I got the fire going and declared it a "Good fire."

The evening in her sitting room when she cajoled our seminar into reciting from collective memory, "Sailing to Byzantium," among other poems. Her insistence that we all read out loud and take pleasure in it, truly possessing the words we had written. Carolyn, Muse; Carolyn Cheerleader; Carolyn, loyal friend; Carolyn who held the keys to a world I never knew existed, making sure all doors were unlocked. Her admonitions, "Look! Look!"

After Carolyn and her husband John Woodbridge returned to California, I visited at least once a year to the Berkeley area. Carolyn continued to encourage me to read and to introduce me to other writers. It was as though the classroom had become portable and had transported us to the West Coast. An often topic of conversation was our mutual love and concern for Margaret Rabb, who had attended law school, married an early love and, in the early 80s, gave birth to twin daughters, Eleanor Arwen and Diana Blake Potter. We so much hoped she would continue to write and be productive. My task was to keep poetry in the front of her imagination. Inspired by Carolyn, I sent cards, announcements of poetry readings etc. What happened over the years was the cementing of a friendship which became lifelong. Carolyn very often referred to writers whose friendships sustained her creative life; James Wright, Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, Stanley Kunitz, Donald Keene, Edmund Keeley, Reynolds Price & artists Mark Tobey, Carl and Hilda Morris and Morris Graves. Carolyn's encouragements led me to develop over time a modest art collection by artists local to where I reside in Southern California.

Not only did Carolyn introduce me to a life of writing and reading she had provided me with a map for a full and creative life, one enriched by friendships across the span of the creative arts. Carolyn also taught me a thing or two about loyalty in friendship. I recall making a disparaging remark about one of the later novels of Reynolds Price. Carolyn quickly "shushed" me and stated that Reynolds was a friend and, although I might not have liked the novel, she was not interested in hearing any of my negative comments.

There was a turning point in our relationship in 1992. My brother Joseph called and told me he was HIV positive—at that time a certain death sentence. My response was a poem entitled "Swimming Past Iceland." I honed the poem over a period of a few months then sent what I thought a finished poem to Carolyn. She returned the poem with the opening line cleanly marked through, at the bottom in her neat printing, "Jackson, dear, you've written a perfect poem" I was almost 40 and I had been working on writing the perfect poem or at least an approximation of a finished poem for 17 years. It was a path I started in Chapel Hill under Carolyn's careful tutelage. The Chapel Hill experience enriched because she encouraged me to take a seminar with Jerome "Sandy" Seaton, and another with Louis Lipsitz. She also encouraged me to work with William Harmon who took over her seminars when she departed in the spring of 1975 to teach at the University of Ohio, Athens campus.

I have become unstuck in time to recall singular moments of a remarkable teacher. One who championed Flaubert's idea of "le mot juste" and also championed the ability to read one's work aloud and with meaning. Carolyn also thought it important that significant works of poetry be retained as long as possible in one's memory, making the games of recitation more significant in retrospective. Now our friendship has been reduced to brief visits and many, many cards; cards which often simply read, "saw this, thought of you, always with great love."