Remembering Jeff Daniel Marion: Poems and Remembrances for Appalachian Places


Jeff Daniel Marion poses in front of a pond
Photographs courtesy of Stephen Marion

On July 29, 2021, Appalachia lost one of its most beloved and esteemed poets, East Tennessee’s own Jeff Daniel Marion. To recognize the anniversary of his passing, Appalachian Places is honored to share three unpublished Marion poems and three remembrances by some of those who were closest to him, as well as a full obituary that recounts some of his many accomplishments. Danny was a cherished friend and mentor to me from my student days of learning poetry in Knoxville, Tennessee. I have written often, and spoken to anyone who would listen, about his boundless gift for friendship, as well as his genius with words and images. One of my most gratifying endeavors was co-editing a volume celebrating Danny’s life and work, Jeff Daniel Marion: Poet on the Holston (U of TN Press, 2016), with Ernest Lee and Thomas Alan Holmes. My last phone conversation with Danny took place less than two weeks before his passing, and one of the many things we discussed was the selection of poems that follow. I remember thinking after our call how cheerful and well he sounded as we talked about our families, mutual poet-friends, and all the restaurants we couldn’t wait to get back to once the pandemic finally settled. He was excited that the old Now & Then Magazine was getting a second life with the launch of Appalachian Places, and he was pleased at the thought of his work being a part of this new venture. He mentioned all three of these poems and said with a grin I could picture through the phone, “One of them might even make you chuckle.” I am deeply grateful to his widow, Melody Marion, for making sure these poems reached me after his sudden passing and to his son Stephen Marion for giving us permission to publish them here for the first time. I appreciate both Melody and Stephen, and Danny’s dearest friend and colleague, Ernest Lee, for their beautiful and heart-warming remembrances of Danny. I loved the man as I loved his work, and hope that readers everywhere will savor these final poems from our treasured Poet on the Holston, Jeff Daniel Marion.


Jesse Graves

Poetry Editor, Appalachian Places



 

Jeff Daniel Marion: “The Belt I Never Wore,” “Ritual,” “Our Shetland Sheepdog Writes a Christmas Letter”



Jeff Daniel Marion, a native of Rogersville, Tennessee, taught English and creative writing at Carson-Newman College (now University) for over 35 years until his retirement in 2002. He published nine poetry collections, four poetry chapbooks, and a children’s book, Hello, Crow. His poems appeared in a variety of journals including The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Tar River Poetry, Atlanta Review, and Appalachian Journal, and in anthologies such as HomeWorks: A Book of Tennessee Writers. In the 1970s and ‘80s, he worked as poet-in-the-schools in North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee and for decades lectured and conducted workshops on teaching and writing throughout the southern Appalachian region. In 1975, Marion founded The Small Farm, a significant regional poetry journal, which he edited until 1980. The Appalachian Writers Association presented him the 2002 Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature Award and in 2007 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. Marion was awarded the 2011 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South by the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and in spring 2013, his work and career were celebrated at a literary festival in his honor at Carson-Newman University and in a tribute at Walters State Community College.




The Belt I Never Wore

It hung there in the maple’s shade,

just inside the fence around my grandmother’s

home, all fifty-eight inches of its body

stilled, its head impaled on the pitchfork’s tine.

Going out to hoe the garden, Aunt Dollie

encountered it, coiled in the bean vines.

My friend an expert in curing hides,

I could see the beauty of this belt

snugging tightly around my waist, the mosaic

diamonds daring to touch. But my mother

was having none of it, refused to ride

in a car with that creature in it.

So there it hung until flies swarmed

the carcass and later Dollie buried it.

But I kept the rattle, eleven sections

and a button, papery thin and fragile,

yet still haunting to hear.




Ritual

for Ted Kooser

Spec Johnson knew a thing or two

but mostly kept quiet about it.

All day every day at Black Oak Dock

he swept the world into place,

paced the floating planks

of the walkway a hundred times over,

offering hints on what streamer or jig bait,

where stripe or rock bass fed

till his moment of stolen pleasure,

staring into the watery world of his own reflection:

he dangled a minnow from his right hand

and knocked three times on the dock with his left.

The mirror shattered in a spangle spray

and the great fish took the offering,

a second’s flash, before plunging back

into the deepening dark.




Our Shetland Sheepdog Writes a Christmas Letter

A wagging tail and wet lick to you all—

Blue Merle, Sable, and Tricolor.

I hope by now you’ve discovered

the hidden water bowl beneath

your Christmas tree—its pine-cedary

tang is fine indeed!

No sheep to herd here—just two humans

and they’re easy to corral—

only one entry/exit and I sleep

in front of it. Two good meals

a day with treats—but then we all

know the old trick when they sit down

to eat: lay your head on their knees

and look soulfully into their eyes—

it’ll get you a morsel or two every time.

Nothing much to complain about,

except a few weeks back they took

me to a kennel for boarding.

I shook loose from my leash and ran.

Fields rippled in sunlight like a great river

before me: the old dream of running free

forever across endless green!

But then I heard my name and Stay.

And I did—and so here I am

just as we all are, good boy, sweet girl,

Stay. But when old Bing starts to sing

“White Christmas,” I’ll go out and howl

at the moon, but I’ll be dreaming

of those green fields rolling

like an endless river forever.



 



Stephen Marion

The Summer After the Summer

The Bargain Barn didn’t have much to interest a boy. Maybe the gumball machine up front, which only took the impossibly large currency of quarters, a denomination we didn’t have. So mostly, I would drift around tracing my fingers across the used objects for sale. Objects drained of any sparkly newness; their metals warm on a hot summer day giving back my warped reflection with only a fan to stir the air in the room that had once been part of a gas station.


I was too young to realize we’d come here to escape. I had no idea a Saturday visit to Rogersville with its tour of the living rooms of relatives could weigh down a man who was glad to return to East Tennessee from southern Mississippi but was not yet sure what he wanted to do with the accompanying feelings. I’d gravitate toward my father who would be where I could always find him, standing in front of the Bargain Barn’s lone bookshelf. He always stood in a particular way in front of bookshelves, head turned lightly to one side as if looking for the one narrow window with a view into the distance.


It’s hard to imagine my father without books, but back then, when I had just finished first grade, he didn’t have many. It was clear even to me, however, that he wanted them. That summer for his thirtieth birthday, I had given him a one-dollar paperback called Hiking in the Great Smokies: Carson Brewer Tells Where and How.


It was a time of changes for both of us. I had learned to read and to cope with the agony of leaving home every morning for school. He had completed his first year of teaching after returning to East Tennessee, and one of his influential mentors, Stephen Mooney, was in the last year of his life.


In those days, my father wore glasses with black plastic frames, as Mooney had, and smoked cigarettes. Years later, he would enjoy recalling Mooney lecturing and smoking in a graduate seminar, where he paused to flick his cigarette ash out the open window.


“Hit a baby on the head,” said Mooney.


“I thought it was funny,” my father said. “Nobody else laughed.”


Mooney’s ghost appeared to several of his friends the next summer, usually during rainstorms. We were never visited, as far as I know, but I had received a letter from Mooney written the day I was born, with a return address on Royal Street in New Orleans. “Hurry up and learn to read, boy,” it said, adding that I was destined to be a “book-loving Tennessee Marion.”


Maybe that was an easy prediction. But what was not easy to predict, maybe even to my father, was where he was headed that summer. Not too many years before, his eldest uncle and university benefactor withdrew support for my father’s education when it became clear Rogersville would receive an English teacher instead of a medical doctor. Even my grandfather, who used the proceeds from the soft drink machine installed in the printing plant where he worked to make up for his brother’s lost support, had to agree that higher learning had “ruined” his son. And that the venture into southern Mississippi to teach and work on another degree had been a dead end.


“God, what a sentence,” the moving van driver had said when my father told him he intended to stay in Hattiesburg for four or five years. I guess he kept hearing the echo of that conversation at night after the family had gone to bed, because instead of grading freshman papers as he was meant to, my father started to write a few fragments of something, resembling verse, about the place he missed.


Years later, he stopped talking for a moment as we were headed down Interstate 81 in northern Virginia.


“I like that,” he said of the song on the radio. “Who is that?”


It was I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2.


“I like it,” he said.


I should have figured he would. He was always led forward by the promise of something else, something more. When he was a kid, his Aunt Vertie used to tell him, “We’re going to find us a rich old man, and we’ll be so good to him we’ll have him eating out of our hand, and he’s going to leave us all that money, and don’t you know we are going to have us a big old time then for the rest of our lives.” And my dad would eat it up, he recalled. He’d get so excited he’d be sick with it.


And all the notions, all the ideas, the plans, the projects, the escapades. He moved us to a farm when I was 12 and spent most of one summer removing Canadian thistles. He decided we’d make blackberry wine and have goats. I found the bell he bought for them at the Cumberland General Store, but we never got the goats. He moved printing presses into the basement. One of them tipped over as his truck turned onto Cline Road and then proved too big for the door, which was taken out along with a section of brick wall. We started an ill-fated vineyard, an orchard and a rock wall. We chopped down an elm with an ax and sawed it up with a crosscut saw.


Books, authors and writing guided it all. William Stafford slept on the living room couch before his reading. Fred Chappell kissed my sister’s hand. At Faulkner’s grave, my father picked up an oak leaf for Ted Kooser. And all the literary students gravitated toward my father’s office or his pressroom the way he had been drawn to Mooney, simply to, as my dad always put it, “visit.”

I found the Carson Brewer book the summer one year after my father’s death. It was on the shelf in what my dad always called his “river room.” Barely big enough for one, the river room, with a desk and windows on all sides with views up and down the Holston River, served as a helm for his explorations. Of all the places he tried, this little house, fully lined on the inside with books and on the outside with mud dauber nests, best contained his energies.


Inside the cover, with its cartoon family headed up a trail, he has written, “To Daddy, From,” and I’ve added “Stephen” in descending first grade print. Below is the date, July 7, 1970, his thirtieth birthday. Seven years later, upon meeting my father and without knowing his birthdate, Mooney remarked that he could see they were both “July people.”


The river this humid summer has been obscured by evening mists and steam. Sometimes from the river room it can feel as if it is the house moving, an unmanned boat turning slowly on the water. I have no memory of giving him the book. But I see it here with all the others as I stand in front of the shelves, my head tilted to one side just like my father.



Jeff Daniel Marion's River House | Photos courtesy of Allison Franklin Goley



Ernest Lee

Ambleside

In March 1990, Danny Marion and I traveled to the English Lake District to visit William Wordsworth’s homes and favorite footpaths at Rydal Mount and Grasmere. I had been there before, and I wanted Danny to see something of the English mountains and lakes and the nature of Wordsworth’s life there. He had told me in one of our long talks that he considered Wordsworth to be the most important influence on his own poetry. Danny’s love of the natural world and his celebration of local people and places in East Tennessee shared much in common with Wordsworth’s love of the mountains, waters and people of the Lake District. Our time in the mountains was, as Danny said to me nearly 30 years later, “perfect.” That trip remained in Danny’s mind over the years, and he often told me that it was one of the most important memories of his life.


We stayed in Ambleside near Lake Windermere and walked the footpath to Rydal Mount to visit Wordsworth’s long-time home. The weather in early March was surprisingly beautiful. The fields were vivid green as newborn lambs abounded. The sky was deep blue with a few white clouds casting shadows across the mountains. The highest peaks were snow covered, and we could see the silhouettes of hikers on the high mountain ridges. We both were deeply affected by our walk, and Danny was, as always, keenly observant and fully awake to the world around him. He appreciated the beauty and power of the place and the simplicity of Wordsworth’s life, as well as his commitment to a life of poetry and an avoidance of aristocratic pretensions.


We walked to Rydal Mount to tour Wordsworth’s home and see his library and the surrounding grounds, which Wordsworth and his wife Mary had planted with native plants including Dora’s Field and blooming with daffodils descended from the original ones they had planted upon the death of their daughter. We walked on to Grasmere to see Dove Cottage. Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy had moved into the cottage in 1799, and later Wordsworth’s wife Mary joined them. They were visited by Coleridge, Scott, De Quincey, and many other writers and artists. It was Wordsworth’s desire to practice “plain living and high thinking.” Danny was particularly taken by this quote, and he repeated the phrase to me many times in the ensuing years. Of course, Danny practiced this way of living at his river house on the banks of the Holston River.


That afternoon we visited the simple church Wordsworth had chosen to attend and we read the tribute to him from his Grasmere neighbors who admired and honored him for his dedication and friendship. We went to Wordsworth’s grave in the churchyard and visited the manse from which Wordsworth and his wife Mary looked out to see the graves of their young children. We stopped in at the Red Lion Tavern and admired the border collies belonging to the shepherds who were having a pint there. Danny befriended the dogs, as he always did anywhere we traveled. Of course, throughout our walks Danny’s wry sense of humor kept me laughing. (Danny found humor in all of everyday experiences, even in the dullest faculty meetings.) We ended the day with a long hike back along the shore of Rydal Waters, stopping at the rock Wordsworth frequented to view the lake and admiring the River Rothay which flowed between Rydal Waters and Lake Windermere.


I first became a friend of and colleague with Danny in 1988. In the fall of that year, we took a canoe trip down the Holston River, and that was the first time I marveled at his eye for details and his memory of even the most minor forms and objects we passed along the way. I had never encountered anyone with the kind of memory and vision he had. So, while I was not surprised by Danny’s keen observations during our trip to the Lake District, I gained an even deeper appreciation for his spirit and talents. Even decades later, Danny could recall vividly the details of our travels. He absorbed and expanded his experiences and memories, transforming and translating them into his poetry.


Danny Marion was the most aesthetic person I ever met. By that I mean that he had a perpetual eye for and love of beauty. He daily appreciated, for example, the beauty of a crafted fountain pen, a hand-printed broadside, a rare book or a bird on the Holston River. And he embraced the beauty he discovered in people around him—his family, friends, students, and people throughout East Tennessee and beyond. I was a fortunate participant with Danny for over three decades. I always admired his spirit and his love of “plain living and high thinking.”


Danny called me once, sometime in the middle years of the 1990s, to read to me in its entirety a poem entitled “Beauty,” by B. H. Fairchild. He often would call to read a poem he had just written or to share with me a poem or passage he was admiring. After all my years of being a close friend with Danny, I understood completely why he loved Fairchild’s poem; it was a reflection of his own upbringing and vision. And the poem itself is beautiful in its language and form.


I now miss Danny Marion nearly every day. But I am blessed by memory, and I have his poems and letters and the many books and gifts he gave to me on every birthday and Christmas over the past thirty plus years. So, his spirit lives on, still mentoring me and bringing humor and deeper appreciation into my life. And thankfully, we all have his poems and writings to continue to affect us and, to borrow a line from his poem “Boundaries,” give us “vision honed to the blue sharpness of ridges.”





Melody Marion

Jeff Daniel Marion: A Purposeful Life

“Pay attention.” Thus spoke the wise professor, student of the natural world, native of Appalachia, accomplished poet, keen observer of human nature and avid collector of stories. Jeff Daniel Marion, “Danny” to his friends, used that two-word admonition as a watchword throughout his lifetime, knowing that living was full of complexities, ironies and moments of significance that could easily be missed. Paying attention could be as simple as concentrating on an unseen bird’s calls to identify the type of bird “speaking,” or as complicated as carefully listening to the person in front of him to gain insight into that person’s character.


Danny’s upbringing in Appalachia fostered a deep understanding of the area’s oral tradition. Surrounded by a colorful assembly of aunts, uncles, grandmothers and cousins in addition to his parents, he was part of a family who loved nothing more than telling stories of their past and present, perhaps with a “mite” of embellishment. He paid attention. As a boy he often accompanied his father on evening outings to a local store, “the 96,” where a group of men would gather to talk. Inevitably laughter would punctuate these informal forums as Danny listened and absorbed the art of storytelling. In fact, he learned so well that he could concoct entertaining stories on the spot. Elementary school friends would beg him to tell a long story to the class so their teacher would run out of time to assign homework! As an adult, Danny would sigh with satisfaction upon hearing a new story from a friend’s past, commenting, “That’s a story I didn’t have.”


For Danny, another wonderful aspect of growing up in Appalachia was near-constant interaction with the natural world. The ever-present rugged mountains loomed and beckoned, beguiling him to spend time fishing in their inviting streams and to roam among the dense forests, enjoying spotting all kinds of wildlife and examining insect life. Besides his own innate inclination to love nature, as he matured and began to read American literature in school, the writings of the Transcendentalists were carved into his heart. Emerson and Thoreau, among others, helped to shape his life by deepening his reverence for the joys and wonders found in nature.


Eventually Danny’s love of the natural world grew into a commitment to live as close to it as possible. Most of his adult life he chose to reside at a bend in the road above the Holston River in New Market, Tennessee, naming his home the Riverhouse. He enjoyed quietly watching the river’s undulations each day and the wildlife that surrounded the house. Geese soared over the river in their habitual V formation, calling as they flew; cormorants playfully dipped and disappeared underwater only to emerge yards away; a rock formation resembling an alligator’s head gave blue herons a landing spot from which to fish for a tasty meal. Dragonflies flitted across the landscape, owls hooted nearby at night, and eagles perched on the tallest trees across the river. From the back porch overlooking the river, Danny might spend the afternoon hours watching daylight incrementally recede as the evening’s darkness slowly took possession of the view. For someone who truly loved the natural world, the Riverhouse was an ideal place to live.


Once Danny learned to read in school, he was drawn to the world of ideas, leading to his becoming an educator both “born” and “bred.” He first taught high school English is his hometown of Rogersville, Tennessee, then spent his longtime career as an English professor at Carson-Newman College (now University). Many of his students fondly remember the magic of his occasional, expressive reading aloud of selected short stories. Wit and humor were two of the teaching aids he employed as he discussed world literature, the skill of creative writing as self-expression and other academic topics. Deeply interested in who his students were and who they wished to become, he wanted to help those in his classroom to appreciate the power and beauty of words, which would serve them well in any profession.


In his thirties, Danny began writing poetry—not just teaching literature, but creating it as well. His careful craftsmanship of words steadily gained him a following as he merged three of his loves together in his work: writing skills, storytelling abilities, and devotion to the natural world. Many of the poems in his nine published books, chapbooks, and other literary works reflect some aspect of the natural world. And the last poems he wrote for publication—the three printed in this article—all involve nature on a personal level, in the form of our dog, a snake, and a great fish.


Danny, who could be described as a storyteller poet, often made a story the centerpiece of a poem, as in “The Belt I Never Wore” and “Ritual.” For other poems, such as “Our Shetland Sheepdog Writes a Christmas Letter,” he created a story framework around an event lacking such a context. For Danny, stories were a shining source of material for all kinds of writing, thinking, and conversations. Mentally, he would dip a bucket into the deep well-waters of memories and draw out the story he wanted, the one that would provide just the right structure for a new poem or illuminate a conversation.


Danny was long fascinated by two simple but significant words, home and water. He paid attention to the ways in which each spoke to him deeply. Both words represent tangible realities yet contain elements of internal longing and the mysteries of the universe. In planning for his life after death, Danny wanted to be even closer to nature—indeed, part of it. According to his wishes, his ashes were scattered in the Holston River. Now his commitment to the natural world is total, and home and water have merged into a new and complete reality for him. He is of and in the river’s life daily, having achieved the perfect freedom he wrote about in the Shetland Sheepdog poem—in “an endless river forever.”



 


Jeff Daniel Marion Obituary

Jeff Daniel Marion

July 7, 1940 - July 29, 2021

Jeff Daniel Marion, 81, of New Market, died last Thursday, July 29, 2021, at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center of a heart attack. He was predeceased by his parents, J.D. and Eloise (Gladson) Marion of Rogersville. Survivors include his wife Melody Marion of New Market; son Stephen Marion (Eugenia) of Dandridge; daughter Rachel Franklin (Stuart) of Rogersville; granddaughters Allison Goley (Noah) of Kingsport, Jenna Franklin of Rogersville; stepson Dan McCoy of Mukilteo, Washington; stepdaughter Katy McCoy Landrum (Josh) of Nashville; and step-grandson Luke Landrum of Nashville; and Shetland Sheepdog, Italia.


Danny Marion grew up in 1940s and ‘50s Rogersville, the community that would later be at the center of his nine books of poetry. For him, the world began on his grandmother Lucy Gladson’s farm and grew outward to include an extended family of three sets of aunts and uncles who helped his parents raise him, a downtown that hadn’t changed much in a century, and a surrounding countryside that included the Holston River, the history and natural history of which would fascinate him for the rest of his life.


He taught English at Rogersville High School and at Webb School while completing his master’s degree at the University of Tennessee and then came to Carson-Newman College to begin a career of more than 30 years, during which he founded the Appalachian Cultural Center, guided the literary magazine Mossy Creek Journal, was appointed as the school’s first poet-in-residence, and encouraged hundreds of writing students who were a lifelong source of inspiration to him.


Drawn to words and language from the time he was a child, he began to write poetry in the late 1960s while he was homesick for the mountains during a short-lived attempt at further graduate study in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Over the next five decades, his work explored the Southern Appalachian region with an imagist’s eye and a native son’s feel for the people, their humor, relationships, and struggles.


He filled his life with other pursuits, too. His journal, The Small Farm, published in the 1970s, nurtured the voices of poets in the region and outside. He took up letterpress printing, and his Mill Springs Press published handprinted books of poetry as well as broadsides and other publications. He was a lifelong photographer, loved trout-fishing and bird-watching from his house on the Holston River, and collected books and fountain pens, developing relationships in each pursuit that he treasured. He leaves a body of work across several genres that is indelibly marked with his gentle spirit embodying elegance, grace, and wit, but most of all he leaves a community of friends and family whose lives were changed for the better by his presence.