Randall Jarrell teaches in Taylor Garden, 1961
The presence of the poet
Heather Ross Miller '61, '69 MFA explores the spirit of Randall Jarrell with her newest book of poetry, “Celestial Navigator”
Photo: Randall Jarrell teaches in Taylor Garden, 1961
By Beth English '07 MALS, UNCG magazine editor
Photo of Heather Ross Miller by Melissa Miller, Archival photograph courtesy of the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives

Heather Ross Miller '61, '69 MFA lives with the ghost of Randall Jarrell.

“I always hear his voice,” she says. “He's haunted me, but in a good way.”

Heather, professor emerita of creative writing and literature from Washington and Lee University and the author of more than 20 books, set out to write a critical work about her former Woman's College professor. It didn't work.

“I'm not that dedicated a scholar,” Heather says. “It dawned on me to put it all together with poetry — his influence on me as a young person. The book came together in a rush.”

This spring, Louisiana Literature Press published “Celestial Navigator: Writing poems with Randall Jarrell.”

Jarrell was many things: acclaimed poet, literary critic, children's book author, essayist, novelist, former U.S. Poet Laureate, winner of the National Book Award for poetry and recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts.

For some, his name might bring to mind his poems “The Woman at the Washington Zoo” or “The Lost World.” But to Heather, the mention of Jarrell summons powerful images: Poet. Pirate. Teacher. Mentor. Friend.

But Most of the Time

Cap'n Hook, unruly black whiskers hiding
a weak chin, eyes dark as bitter chocolate,
he read your poems out loud, he wrote
them on the board with a bit of chalk,
smudging white down his sleeve.
Daring, flamboyant, swashbuckling
with a crazy creaking giggle, we'd
not be surprised he leapt on the desk
shaking our pages at us, walking
the plank himself.

I hid, a sophomore among seniors,
making my own disaster area, ink
pens and peeled nail polish, crunched up
popcorn balls of note paper, and so
hoped he'd not call on me.
My superiors in black tights and blazers,
they talked on, said lovely things
like superfluous and turning point.
Afterward they'd light up their smart
long cigarettes, slit their tired
eyes against the deep smoke.

Nursing my own filter tip,
I hurried across campus alone,
thanking Cap'n Hook, Blackbeard,
how he'd raided and praised my own
lost treasures of deep and buried things,
those things down next to the bone.

- “Celestial Navigator: Writing poems with Randall Jarrell”

Even before Heather set foot on campus, she was familiar with Jarrell. She comes from a literary family, after all. Her father, Fred, wrote the novel “Jackson Mahaffey.” Her uncle James wrote for the Greensboro Daily News and published several short stories and a crime novel, “They Don't Dance Much.” Her aunt Eleanor was a poet in her own right (in 2010 she received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for outstanding lifetime achievement) and married Peter Taylor, one of the foremost short story tellers of his day. The youngest, her aunt Jean, married poet Donald Justice and wrote a book of short stories in her 80s. Both women graduated from WC, Eleanor in 1940 and Jean in 1946. And Eleanor and Peter shared a duplex with Jarrell and his first wife, Mackie.

It's no surprise, then, when they all gathered at her grandmother's house, Jarrell's name often came up. Even though she had never met him, Heather liked him. “I was taken by the sound of his name — all those Ls.”

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