Chariots Chanting

Dear Brian O’Donovan,

Hearing you on BPR today was the last straw; another was on a dark December night in 2016, when my wife and kids and I found ourselves reluctant occupiers of a pew in the UCC church in Gloucester. There were handfuls of battened fisherfamilies evident in the wide, underlit space, all facing in the same direction as the klieg lights’ throw. Up there where a pulpit should have been were singers, and players, reaching down into somewhere, time and again, to retrieve ancient tunes equal in spark and radiance to the dark that was—and that was coming. I mean they were caroling, and chanting, up among the strung pine boughs, behind a huge yule log, and teasing us out, cajoling us to join them. How? With hurdy-gurdy, a new sound to me, and fiddle, as my father called what he played, and wide drums they wielded like cymbals or flashing shields.

And didn’t we find our separate clusters blending into one big one, and our stiff hesitance softening and dissipating away, and our limbs moving in time, unbidden, and then our actual voices singing along, and even—who’d have believed it?—our bodies, old and young equally, deigning to lift from the pews, and moving out into the aisles, all of us, every single one, to join hands, and circulate the empty seats, the creaking floor drowned by the stomp and tickle of the music we made, and by the dance, wherever we may be, which was in a dark, bright Gloucester church on a night no one expected would hold such a thing, no one who was me, anyway.

The other straw was on a recent Saturday afternoon by the sea in Marblehead, my kids and me in the car on an early March day of our long withdrawing, listening, after climbing a rocky hill, to someone on your show who you’d recorded earlier, back from a tour or about to tour again, one of many such persons whose song that day, in whatever voice, male or female, with whichever instrument, sparked up like a fire against the strange darkness and distance we knew were coming, and have come—waiting in the rollicking air until the song ended, and only then turning the key, and driving on into the day.

I hope you’ll give 30 seconds to the attached audio clip [below] from that old December night; you’ll hear the stomp and tickle you yourself are so familiar with, and our voices, chasing our eager leader, following her with hope and heart into the long passage through night.

Brian O’Donovan is the host of A Celtic Sojourn, Saturday afternoons on WGBH radio.

Letter – to Bill Littlefield

Dear Bill,

As happens now and then, I stayed in the car in my driveway this morning to hear all of your essay on Never Playing a Friendly Game. Which is to say: great writing, yet again.

What do I remember my coaches saying?

Because there was no proper place for such a thing around the wide, Pennsylvania farmlands where I played little league, my coach replied: “What do you want to do–go in my pocket?”

In Lubbock, Texas, my basketball coach, when my dad inquired if I’d get any playing time, leaned down and offered, “DO YOU WANT TO COACH THE TEAM?”

Same city, a soccer coach introduced me to the word “dadgummit.” And then demonstrated its many forms and uses.

Another soccer coach reminded me often that we who were riding the bench were pretty much responsible for our teammates’ on-field gaffes.

Same city, my something-league baseball coach advised me to stop running under trees, even though I couldn’t see the Top Flites he was fungo-ing toward us with his seven iron.

Same again, a new hoop coach, when I flubbed another easy layup, would become a human calliope, piping a circus theme.

Finally, in high school, a wrestling coach, who liked to pit “heads against jocks” on the mat, picked me to ref a gym class soccer game. Afterward, he eased over and said, “Good work, Stevick. You should think about reffing.”

I took what I could get. It was a legit compliment, finally.

Thanks for your dadgum good essays at WBUR, Littlefield.

Mark Stevick

Bill Littlefield’s essay, “On fathers, sons And Tennis: I’m Glad I Wasn’t That Good,” is here.

Letter – to poet Mark Halliday

Here’s a poem by Mark Halliday. It’s one of many of his that compelled me to send him an email.

Mark Halliday

David Porter has said that for Dickinson
death is the summoner of style.
And I think of you placing your gray checked scarf
around your neck on a day in December.
Your hair, like hair that Yeats might have ached to touch,
falls across the scarf and upon the shoulders of
your black coat; we move toward the door;

the street opens upon my gaze like a new feature film
with sober intentions and I stand for a second
awed by the task of appreciation—
your hands—your eyes. There is the banquet
of what we do have while knowing it can vanish
and there is the cold banquet of what we once had
or conceivably could have had—
at both tables we gaze into the lamplit wine
and want to say something true but
not only true, something also lovely
in a respectful and charismatic sadness.
Here is the car, my dear, your gray Mazda,
and here we are in the middle of something,

unreligious, distracted, but lightly touching
each other’s knees from time to time during the ride
for the sake of what has been luminous and is not gone.

-from Tasker Street, The University of Massachusetts Press, © 1992. Winner of the Juniper Prize.


I wish I could write like that. Here’s the email I sent him.

Dear Mr. Halliday,

This morning I’m wading through closing documents for a house sale we’ll (Lord help) accomplish at noon, after three years of prep and pain.

I paused just now to read Writer’s Almanac. Which has forced me to look up your email and send you this sort of plaudit and thanks.

I’m almost done. Left to say is that in 1989, late summer, I arrived at a reading sponsored by the Boston University graduate creative writing program that I had, somehow, been accepted into. Only one seat remained in the room; it was in the front row, beside, I later learned, Lloyd Schwartz.

Then you read things that never depart, like “Gimme those worms, Jody.” And “back to his or her perfect desk.” (Forgive any misquoting.)

Your poems have been with me all these years—new poems, too. I never don’t read “Ketchup and Heaven” to my students. Never don’t I read aloud to them “just like this loaded world.”

We all repaired, after that singular reading (at which Mr. Schwartz and I kept looking at each other with amazement), to some restaurant nearby, and sat outside. Robert Pinsky was with us. Every three years or so I drive by that restaurant with my wife and say something feeble and charismatic about that dinner with Halliday. But, I repeat, I read your poems aloud.

Now I’ll click send and return to HUD statements and be glad, in an hour, to be free of a debt and burden. And glad to have said thanks to you meanwhile—and that you and George Saunders are the only writers I’d commit crimes to host at the college north of Boston where I teach. If you’re ever nearby for this or that, and have an inclination to pop in for an evening, we’d gather a keen group to hear, and find some meager funds to fork over.

I’m saying that I love your poems.

Here is the car, my dear,

Mark Wacome Stevick

Astonishingly (to me), and sweetly, Mark Halliday emailed me back within the hour, to say thanks—and to request my address, to which he posted his two newest books of poetry. Character will out.
Let us be heartened by this story.

Letter – to the Literary Department at London’s National Theatre

Dear Ms Peters,

I type this with a latte to hand here on one of the National’s high outside balconies. Moments ago the courteous Dominic at the stage door sent me to you through this portal.

I’m a teacher and writer, and since 1995 I’ve brought 350 college students from a hamlet north of Boston (USA) here to London to see shows at the NT. Our tally of seen shows exceeds 100. Yesterday we added Angels in America to the list.

—a production we will never quite get over. Neither will forget the opening of The Bacchae, or the final moment of Iphigenia at Aulis. A hundred-hundred moments that lived first for us in the ripple seats live in us yet, and have livened how we do theatre, how we teach writing, in our small liberal arts school.

When we lay over in London on our way to other Europes, we queue early and stay late under your roof. Conversations with Simon Russell Beale, Patrick Marber, Caryl Churhill, Jeremy Irons, Wallace Shawn, Desmond Barrit, Rita Moreno, Michael Frayn, Christopher Hampton, Judi Dench, William Houston, Emily Watson, Anna Chancellor, even John Gielgud (who came with Dame Judi to see Ian Holm in Lear)—these never leave us, and inspire gratitude still.

We cherish the sweet, savvy tour guides who’ve shown us backstage and front, mentioning the reason for the seat color in the Olivier. We remember jazz on the concert pitch, and the green AstroTurf (as we call it) of Watch This Space, and the bracing shows (with Chiwetel Ejiofor & Andrew Lincoln) in the Lyttelton foyers.

—and the hours we spent kindling with other lovers like us in and around your concrete crucible of lifetimes.

All of this to say: your address is our favorite on earth, and your commitments have improved our days.

In another year or so I expect to be granted a sabbatical from teaching playwriting and poetry. I have no greater wish than to find my way back to your address, for some shorter or longer period. There is no place I’d rather be.

Could I volunteer whatever I have for any need or purpose of yours? Requiring no pay, only a backstage pass to satisfy Dominic, I could write toward a “Making Of” account, like those on Humble Boy and Bacchae that I give my students. Or perhaps I can assist in useful ways with your growing online archive, a resource I access often. Or sign me up as a tour guide, and pay me nothing to enrich as I’ve been. Do you need a diarist? An assistant to a dramaturg? Someone to make copies or phone calls for the New Work Department, or set out chairs and water for Al Senter-and-guest? Or even a fellow to field oddball offers like this one?

If so, I’m your man.

And it needn’t ding a single budget line, because I’ll still be in the pay of my usual employer, a college that’s seen fit to invest in our annual pilgrimage here to the South Bank.

That’s my hopeful pitch. Now this:

Once, jogging to one of your shows, my billfold leapt unawares from my pocket somewhere between the Cottesloe and the base of the stairs from Waterloo Bridge. I realized the loss at the box office, and retraced my steps in a proper panic and haste. And there it was on the stones, fat with 900 quid, somehow invisible to all but me and bronze Sir Laurence.

Like so much that happens where you are—where I sit as I type—this little story is imbued with a grace, and is beautiful because it’s inscrutable and undeserved.

Will you keep me and my lucky wallet in mind?

Sincerely, with gratitude,

Mark Wacome Stevick

-A version of this was sent summer 2016, and this version last summer. No reply yet.

Letter – In Praise of Andrew Logemann

I’ll begin with the obvious and true: Andrew Logemann is a lovely, optimistic, intelligent, thoughtful and affirming person—someone we’re all pleased to know and work with.

These several (of many) attractive traits mattered significantly when Andrew arrived at Gordon as a new hire: at the time our English Department was (how to phrase this?) in the final moments of what had been a fairly prolonged period of stormy weather, and Andrew’s new presence helped usher in the brighter day we now enjoy. I pay tribute here to the delicate and diplomatic work done by Janis Flint-Ferguson and then Andrea Frankwitz as department chair—work that kept our craft right and directioned under difficulty. I might even say “under duress,” because in the first year or two of Andrew’s appointment our department meetings were enough to cause a fellow two migraines—one before and one after. I feared at the time that Andrew might abandon our shaky ship, and though I couldn’t blame him if he did, I kept murmuring to him some version of “I hope we keep you.”

This is all well and good, but why did I murmur this to him over the years? I murmured because Andrew’s commitments and excellences became quickly apparent—his competence as a teacher, his commitment to scholarship, his gyroscopic impact on our English department, his engagement with the ethos of the college and of a liberal arts education, and his discernible commitment to improving as a teacher and scholar, a colleague and a Christian.

The previous wordy sentence only headlines a few of my reasons for my murmurings, and now I despair at being able to trace in fine detail the wide-ranging and salutary impact Andrew has had on our people and programs. Fortunately for me, Andrew’s achievements are well known.

Still, let some specifics here insinuate the pattern.

Andrew’s leadership in our department has been capable from the get-go, and it’s been a pleasure to see him grow in confidence as chair. This is right and good: he has obvious administrative gifts and interpersonal savvy. He can think broadly and in detail equally well, and he gracefully directs our conversations, soliciting and heeding comments while keeping us on task. This is no small feat, gentle reader. Despite certain perennial stressors , morale among the literati is quite high—higher than I’ve ever known it to be. (And I’ve been around for 30 years—since 1983.) Andrew is in large part the reason for this: it’s quite remarkable how his can-do attitude has altered the atmosphere, and this in turn has made possible other small blossomings. (“It’s a new day!” Borgman barked at me, cheerfully, over the salad bar one day, and he meant because of Andrew.) Andrew’s influence is working through our whole batch.

I’ve appreciated Andrew’s clear, consistent communication with our students and our department members. This has involved Andrew’s collating and making available information about the major and its relationship to GEO and JAF and the Elijah Project—relationships that have needed clarifying. I think more than ever both students and faculty can grasp the specifics and the nuances of our major. All of this is done for our students’ benefit, of course, and Andrew has consistently looked for authentic ways to improve the English major’s experience at Gordon. His careful communiqués to our majors demonstrate in substance, syntax and tone that we care for them.

As a teacher Andrew has been a pace-setter in his use of technology in his courses. Students mention this to me (as if I didn’t already know it). Several times I’ve attended presentations Andrew has made to students, and he’s superbly competent with Blackboard and PowerPoint. He even blogs, and is touted as one of the two or three blogging profs that students should follow. I’ll say more: he tweets as well, and here, too, he directs students and colleagues to essays on the humanities, the liberal arts, the challenges facing higher education, and on what you can do with a degree in English. I’ve enjoyed reading some of these essays, and enjoyed as well the conversations among colleagues that have ensued as a result. Thus Andrew enlivens our discourse even through blogs and tweets, gentle reader. I know students give him high marks for such things, and well they should, at this stage of the game.

And, what matters more, they give him high marks for his teaching—and specifically for his efforts to find ways to reach more students, to reach them better. I’m humbled, awed, in fact, by how good Andrew is at designing a course and laying it out in a syllabus. What a gift to our students! I’ll note here what you must already know: Andrew is clear about his expectations; his expectations are high; this is appreciated. There’s admirable, useful sequencing in his assignments, and there’s a deliberate attentiveness to learning styles. Andrew is conscientious about the proper use of class time and about returning student work on time. And he attends carefully to his course evaluations, making adjustments consistently to enhance the students’ experience. In these things he is faithful in the small so as to be faithful in the large, and students know this. Students crave to be in a classroom taught by someone who asks much of them, more perhaps than they think they can deliver, and who at the same time communicates by his demeanor, his attentiveness, his organization, his stewardship of their time that he values their minds and expects them to grow.

This is not so common a thing, methinks. In fact, I regard the blending of skills and domains that Andrew represents as quite rare.

What haven’t I mentioned much here?—Andrew’s willingness to assume leadership positions (on difficult sub-committees), his creating of new courses (in response to curricular needs), his broader contributions to his discipline (again, in positions of leadership). I’ve also not much mentioned his Christian faith: I will now, by saying merely that I believe it to be active, alive, real—all the adjectives that seem so unsuited to characterizing what is mysterious but manifest, and trusted. We have already come to rely on him for this real faith. Thank God for Andrew’s leadership in this, too.

We need him here in Wenham; the times were never so good in our precincts, say I. And should he manage to campaign us a new faculty member*, then our joy would be complete.

If anyone can, it’s Andrew.

*He did “campaign us” a new faculty member: Chad Stutz. And then another: Kerilyn Harkaway-Krieger. Next we hope will be Jennifer West.

Letter – In Praise of Chad Stutz

It’s a pleasure to mention in these paragraphs some of Chad’s qualities, habits and achievements which are doubtlessly already well known to colleagues and administrators. I’ll try to include a few less-well-known snapshots of Chad in action to justify our mutual high regard for our man.

Starting with his tryout lecture when he was a candidate. His aim was to convey a sense of the shifts in English literature through the 19th-century, and he did this ably—astonishingly, even—by bookending his lecture with two bird poems (poems about birds), composed at either ends of the century. Not only were students shown how to read a poem alertly, but they were then invited to compare formal, topical and tonal elements in the poems with Chad as he took them from the bucolic odes of the Romantics to the more brutal lyrics of the Industrial Revolution.

It was a tour de force, so good, in fact, that Paul Borgman was flummoxed. (Borgman, gentle reader, is not big on lecturers: he prefers a more Socratic mode of teaching.) After the class, at lunch in the Pendragon, Paul gave Chad his assessment: “It was such a good lecture that I’m going to vote against your candidacy.” He went on to explain that, in his view, Chad’s dazzling presentation had left no room for students to develop and insert their own readings.

We know, of course, that Chad won the day, and here is why this anecdote has further relevance: Chad’s good nature, his gentle spirit, his receptive attitude and good humor were evident in that exchange and have been reliably so in the years he’s been in our English department. If he took umbrage at Paul’s eyebrow-raising remark, he never gave a hint. And in fact, he has worked warmly, gracefully, effectively with Paul (and the rest of us), and we are better for him.

This warm demeanor he also brings to the classroom and the sidewalk. My advisees speak affectionately and admiringly of his approachability, and I have been present for several quad-side encounters with Chad, and have observed my students brighten at his approach and relish a lively chat. He is clearly held in high regard for his willingness to engage.

And also for his intellect and his teaching. Unbidden, during advising sessions, my students will effuse about Chad’s teaching. They appreciate his expertise in the literature and his skill in unpacking it (both of which I witnessed firsthand); they appreciate the larger and smaller motions of his courses, and they give particular praise for his ability to orchestrate conversations during class. (What a delightful irony in light of Paul’s objection.) My advisee Will Martin has signed up for several of Chad’s courses and declares that Chad is great at this: he manages to include many voices but somehow keeps everyone on point, keeps the discussion moving forward productively. He does this even in courses with lots of students in lots of desks.

Let me preach to the choir: this is good news for our classrooms, our major, our college. When a prof who knows his stuff can engage students thus, and entice them into owning the material for themselves, and direct them deftly toward what is difficult and what matters, then we have graduates who can think, and who can transfer that ability to any setting.

But we know this about Chad. We know he can be relied on to lead in a quiet, effective way. We’ve seen him do this at English department convocations and prayer sessions. We’ve seen him appointed to committees (like the Governance Committee) where his gifts and affect are in need and in evidence. We watch him in meetings with prospective students and their families, and are grateful for his winsomeness and credibility as he champions the major and the college. I want to credit and thank him here for regularly volunteering to be our ambassador at more than his share of these meetings, and to appreciate how he receives all comers—warmly, alertly—even those who bring bristling questions like, “You don’t read books like Catcher in the Rye, do you?”

This is a service, and it is a mark of his character, his faith, his commitments.

Chad enriches our community and elevates our conversations. His scholarship and teaching are leavening our English major, and will continue to do so as he settles into his courses and continues to add exciting, challenging, important new ones. His service and spirit are leavening our committees and considerations. We will turn to him increasingly, as we do in large and small groups, to pray aloud for us, to offer a wise, concurring or countering view, to carry and shape the ethos of a place we love together.

We need him. Let’s let him know.

-Chad was on a sabbatical leave this semester.

Letter – Thanks for Prayers (last Christmas)

Dear Colleagues,

Many of you took note of the fact that I was in the ER on Friday [last year], ready for emergency surgery. Just before the surgeon got out his strop, he realized my dangerous hernia actually wasn’t so, and that I could safely delay the business until after classes and finals are done. Praises.

Many of you–maybe every single person at Gordon, who knows?–prayed for me Friday, and perhaps God, who is outside time, and whose Son interprets our words and wordless groanings, credits those prayers where and even when they are most needed. Surely I was, I am, the beneficiary of those prayers. I feel I will continue to be. Thank you so much for them.

(I hope I’m not being heretical. I know I’m being grateful.)

I ask God to multiply those prayers of yours as Jesus did with loaves and fish, and to distribute them where they are needed, especially to people we love here at Gordon who need them–and to those of us who suffer any kind of trouble, who await diagnoses with shortened breath.

–and even to change their water to wine, those implorings to thankings, for gifts of life, like newbie Anders Hunt, whose birth I will always associate with my own unexpected, undeserved return to health.


-gratitude from December, 2014. Beverly Hospital gets my vote.