Death has been in the air lately. There were the funerals of John McCain and Aretha Franklin, minutely analyzed in the national media. Here in West Michigan the passing of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos has been getting like treatment, for those who care. This week we were reminded of the 2,996 victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, while other voices noted that, by best estimates, a nearly identical number perished due to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017. Then there’s my most recent post on this site about the dead of World War I.
At the risk of beating the death theme to, well…, death, I’d like to pause to honor the passing of Rod Jellema earlier this year. Rod was an outstanding poet, the founder and long-time director of the creative writing program at the University of Maryland, and an animating spirit of The Writer’s Center outside of Washington DC. As the testimonies in a recent issue of the Innisfree Poetry Journal make plain, he was a mentor, inspiration, and beloved friend to many poets. For more detail on Rod as “midwife” and muse, poet and person, you can peruse the commemorative issue linked above or read the analysis that his long-time friend and fellow English professor Steve Vander Weele contributed to Perspectives Journal a few years ago.
My own interest in Rod’s work started some forty years ago as part of my research on Dutch-American history in the 20th century. In fact, the product of that research, Dutch Calvinism in Modern America (1984), wraps up with Rod’s poetry. I made that choice because he struck me as the consummate insider-outsider of this group, a smart register of the tensions involved in acculturation and resistance. He was born (1927) and reared in Holland, Michigan, and educated at Calvin College (1951). His initial intention to become a medical doctor like his father was overtaken by the powerful force of the philosophers and English professors who then ruled that roost: Henry Stob, Henry Zylstra, and above all Rod’s uncle William Harry Jellema. He went on to take his PhD at the University of Edinburgh and then, in 1955, began his long career at Maryland—and an equally long membership, it happens, at the Washington D.C. Christian Reformed Church.
Rod’s first collection of poetry didn’t appear until 1974. Four more volumes followed over the years, culminating with his 2010 collected poems, Incarnality. Their themes range widely, but four of them show Rod’s enduring concern with his Calvinist inheritance. First, as evident from the title of that last collection, Rod bore in with memorable pace and imagery on the incarnation of the spiritual in the material world, not alone in the person of Christ but in ordinary living things. As he puts it in “Hearing My Teeth Snap the Skin of an Apple,” we yearn not for “that ancient Greek ghost/the Immortal which is only/the pressed light leaking the loss/of what ticks tight and incarnate in apples.” Rather: “The gift is tension, drag.… birds when they sing grip their hands down hard/into bark that is rooted and cuts the wind.” (“The Work of Our Hands”)
Secondly, Rod was little impressed with the bromides of popular religion, especially those treating God as a Johnny-on-the-spot vendor of manifest blessings and perfect assurance. “I have to look in cracks and crevices,” he wrote his Calvin contemporary, Lew Smedes.
Don’t tell me how God’s mercy
is as wide as the ocean, as deep as the sea.
I already believe it, but that infinite prospect
gets farther away the more we mouth it.
This must be why mystics and poets record
the slender incursions of splintered light…
like flashes through darkened hallways.
…The thin and tenuous
thread we hang by, so astonishing,
is the metaphor I need at the shoreline
of all those immeasurable oceans of love.
(“Letter to Lewis Smedes about God’s Presence”)
Appropriately, Rod’s third collection is entitled A Slender Grace (2004). All the more important, in that light, that we always “take a second look” at what we see, or think we have seen, and become aware of what has been hidden there. This is an aesthetic program, Rod labeled it, of “Double Vision.”
My third draw to Rod’s work was his brilliant, quiet evocation of West Michigan scenes—from moments in childhood captured with crystalline purity and deep resonance, to portraits of the Lake Michigan shoreline where he built a cottage—and something of a community. Early on Rod had hiked Lake Michigan’s east coast from Holland to Ludington with his cousin and had espied a particular stretch north of Montague that the two aimed to develop into an artist-intelligentsia retreat, Dutch-American style. The community would feature a jazz club and sites for Calvin and Hope College faculty and alumni to build summer places, gathering betimes to continue those scintillating discussions they had carried on at college.
The jazz club failed, and the finances didn’t all work out, but a fair number of the intended participants did indeed build cottages there. Recently, Gentle Reader, your author joined that number. One can get inured, alas, to the beauty of even that land- and water-scape, so part of my discipline “up at the lake” is to follow Rod’s injunction to see, and to see again what has become familiar. I cannot help but practice my own version of double vision as a historian and see traces everywhere of Rod’s founding vision. His poems about the area provide a spiritual map, a scroll of meaning laid over the dunes, the forest, and the rolling waves.
Central to that meaning for Rod was the connection between father and son—in a broader sense, between home and diaspora, tradition and loss. In “Heading In” he recalls sailing at night, his son aboard, seemingly lost under the “white stars [that] bloom down this desert of water.” Was he “lost in these reflections,” he wonders. “Not quite.”
Pakke’s [Frisian for grandfather] old cells call through my bones
to say, “you are losing your son,”
but a neighbor’s light on the dune points home.
Some night as he sails here alone
my son will pick up and bring back
senses the mind can never know about wind,
his past, work, losses, his hands.
And yet that continuity did not obtain with Rod’s older son, John, who was killed with two others in a car accident at a rural crossroads near the beach. The poet ascends a high dune that had been christened in their honor and there reflects upon the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. For all his desperate imaginings, reflections off “the sand and surf” do not bathe him in a blinding light. “The three memorial boys didn’t show.” So he is left with the vow that, even had they reappeared, he would not have dreamed of abiding on the mountain top like St. Peter. Rather,
I would have left them once again
and come back down
from that forbidden place
… [into] all the empty corners—back to
these tangled things they knew.
(“First Climb Up three Surfers’ Peak”)
In all his work Rod wrote from the love he had for empty corners and tangled things. His poems protest war and poverty and racism; they exult with the joy of the traditional jazz he studied with his other son, David, who has gone on to a performing career in that genre.
Let’s end with a connection that did hold, the one with his father. To return to the theme at the top of this post, it held over the chasm of death. A poem aptly entitled “Incarnation” recounts that event.
… my father, little physician, knew cells. Faces.
Loved most his alcoholic patients, tender
toward their long thirst for a home
that denies our only home.
Addiction, he said, is 80-100 proof
that spirit is,
craves to be flesh.
He understood about incarnation.
Then his father’s body betrays him.
His eyes pleaded with red cancer to hurry
as though it were a skyriding pillar of fire,
but it was cancer flowering down in the flesh,
and down in grey cells under skull-bone,
in an old synapse, is where God the Father
was speaking Dutch to a child
when my father said tot ziens and died.
(Tot ziens: “until we see.”
Never mind wiedersehen, seeing again,
that German illusion.
God and the Dutch tongue
know we have never seen much.)
The poem ends, strikingly enough, upon the theme of faces that has been discussed twice on this site in the past week.
Face by false ascent by phrase
by face by riot I learn, learn that words matter
like bodies, learn not to look up
for some pure-spirit godkin
Christ but down the lost faces
the Word became
before we made it mere word again,
mere tracks in the snow.
Rod Jellema was a rare master of words who made it easier to comprehend our world a bit more, and also the Word made flesh. For that, noble bard, great thanks. Rest in peace and rise in glory.