Jarman, Mark (Foster)

views updated

JARMAN, Mark (Foster)

Nationality: American. Born: Mount Sterling, Kentucky, 5 June 1952. Education: University of California, Santa Cruz, B.A. 1974; University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1974–76, M.F.A. 1976. Family: Married Amy Kane Jarman in 1974; two daughters. Career: Teacher/writing fellow, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1974–76; instructor of English, Indiana State University, Evansville, 1976–78; visiting lecturer of English, University of California, Irvine, 1979–80; assistant professor of English, Murray State University, Kentucky, 1980–83. Assistant professor, 1983–86, associate professor, 1986–92, and since 1992 professor of English, Vanderbilt University, Nashville. Poetry editor, Intro 13, Associated Writing Programs, Norfolk, 1982; co-publisher, 1985–87, Story Line Press, and co-editor, 1981–89, The Reaper, both with Robert McDowell; advisory editor, Story Line Press, 1987–89. Awards: Academy of American Poets prize, 1974; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1977, 1983, 1992; Robert Frost fellowship, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, 1985; Guggenheim fellowship, 1991; The Poets' prize, 1991, for The Black Riviera; Lila Wallace- Reader's Digest grant, 1992; Lenore Marshall Poetry prize, 1998. Address: 509 Broadwell Drive, Nashville, Tennessee 37220, U.S.A.



North Sea. Cleveland, Ohio, Cleveland State Poetry Center, 1978.

The Rote Walker. Pittsburgh, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1981.

Far and Away. Pittsburgh, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1985.

The Black Riviera. Middletown, Connecitcut, Wesleyan University Press, 1990.

Iris. Brownsville, Oregon, Story Line Press, 1992.

Questions for Ecclesiastes. Brownsville, Oregon, Story Line Press, 1997.


Critical Studies: In Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Oberlin, Ohio), spring 1982.

*  *  *

Mark Jarman's poems, more than those of any other poet of his generation, effectively combine the difficult Audenesque virtues of versatility, precision, and lyric resonance. The key word behind Jarman's poetry is "recovery," reclaiming the past in a society intent on erasing the past as soon as its currency fades and in healing the wounds of painful experience. This double-edged pursuit must often lead to the exploration of elusive private memory. In Jarman's poetry the search evokes a deftly balanced tension, a decision made over and over, from poem to poem, about what can and cannot be revealed and in what settings those revelations must truthfully appear.

Jarman, long a believer in the poet's responsibility to root poems in the landscape of a particular region, often returns to Scottish an southern California settings, his personal landscapes of childhood and adolescence, and to Kentucky and Tennessee, where he has lived and taught for a number of years. In "The Supremes," from his 1985 collection Far and Away, Jarman brings back a long-ago morning of surfing as it ends in Ball's Market for sweet rolls. On the store's television set the boys watch the famous Motown group:

   Gloved up to their elbows, their hands raised
   toward us palm out, they sing,
   'Stop! In the Name of Love' and don't stop …

"Every day of a summer," the poet realizes, "can turn, from one moment, into a single day." The poem moves on, recalling a scene in Diana Ross's first film and "the summer it brought back," its minute details carefully laid out, adding up to … what? Unexpectedly, the poem opens up to speculate on the singers' very different memories of that summer and then winds back to the boys in the market:

   But what could we know, tanned white boys,
   wiping sugar and salt from our mouths
   and leaning forward to feel their song?
   Not much, except to feel it
   ravel us up like a wave
   in the silk of white water,
   simply, sweetly, repeatedly,
   and just as quickly let go.

A moment passes, but memory's durable capacity for haunting, for staying with those who live and feel experience rather than sleepwalking through life, can provoke a personal breakthrough, a revelation that may prove relevant to all. "The Supremes" leads us to the discovery that the remembered day and summer, the surfing boys, the local market that would not last, and the famous singing group combine in the poet's memory to form an experience the essence of which was "full of simple sweetness and repetition." Jarman's poems thrive on such breakthroughs, in which ordinary vision, focusing intently, becomes something more penetrating, more revealing, and in which key words, such as "sweetness" and "repetition," take on more than their usual weight, acting both as summaries of the past and as signposts indicating future experience.

In Iris, the seminal book-length narrative poem published in 1992, Jarman adapts the challenging double pentameter of Robinson Jeffers to tell the story of a lower-middle-class Kentucky woman's search for meaning. Iris is a single mother running from an abusive marriage and drug-related violence in her home, and her most compelling constant in a twenty-year odyssey, aside from caring for her daughter and invalid mother, is the poetry of Jeffers. When a community college English teacher asks her why she reads such a poet, Iris gives him a thoughtful answer:

   She put her hand across her mouth and spoke through parted fingers. "I don't think I can tell you.
   I have to. I love the poetry. I think there's something else that he's not telling."

It is this conviction that ultimately leads her to California and then, years later, to a car trip north to see Jeffers's rugged home, Tor House, located on a windy precipice overlooking Monterey Bay. It is there, in the shadow of "the house where pain and pleasure had turned to poetry and stone, and a family had been happy," that the truth of Jeffers's experience and her own life click into place. Because the evidence of Jeffers's domestic life contradicts his stern philosophy, Iris taps into her own capacity to interpret life's complexity. She realizes at last that what we live and how we interpret complex experience may in fact amount to more than a seamless life. This is the key she has been searching for, and it unlocks the point of view that validates her many compromises and difficult decisions.

For Jarman poetry fails if it does not provide the key to such elusive discoveries. A minister's son, he forever pushes against inherited faith, testing both its truthfulness and his own capacity to believe. This effort finds its most distilled expression in the 1997 collection Questions for Ecclesiastes and in a related series of sonnets. In "In Via Est Cisterna" the poet watches as his mother is able to recall only one phrase from a Latin class she took as a girl. Once again, the suggestive significance of the phrase transcends the literal and mundane:

   A well is in the road. It is profound,
   I'm sure, it is a phrase with many levels.
   And then, I see one: the woman with five husbands
   Met Jesus there. But my mother had only one—
   Unless now having lost him she understands
   That he was never who she thought, but someone
   Who was different men with different women through the years.
   In the road is a well. It fills with tears.

Making the leap from a fragment of ancient personal experience—the Latin phrase—to the ramifications of infidelity is typical of the territory one might expect to cover in Jarman's poems. These brief, varied examples verify this poet's technical virtuosity and his storytelling and lyric preeminence among his peers.

—Robert McDowell