Pictures of a Poet

By Lawrence Biemiller

Lake Charles, La. -- Vines from a lushly overgrown yard have worked their way up and over the roof of John Wood's two-story house, as though seeking to hold him tight within their tendrils. But after almost 30 years here -- he is a professor of English at McNeese State University -- he's not trying to escape. He's as well rooted as one of the city's live oaks.

Mr. Wood is a poet of strapping, athletic verbs and elegant, sensual nouns, a poet of life's scents and sorrows. He is also a historian of photography, director of McNeese's M.F.A. program, and a collector of many, many things -- daguerreotypes, art photographs, recordings, old books, Japanese and Chinese art, and long-discredited medical devices. Among McNeese students, a mythology has grown up around Mr. Wood, his 19th-century affectations, his unmatched generosity, his mercurial outbursts, his outrageous stories, and his reluctance to spend money on minor car repairs that could instead be spent on unusual antiques.

Arrive for tea, which is served in a study that is as much museum as workplace, and inside of five minutes he is demonstrating a 19th-century "electro-magneto machine" -- as he turns a small brass crank, you get a mild electrical shock through the two metal hand grips. He plugs in a violet-ray device and uses one of its glass fittings to trace a pattern of fizzing mauve sparks along his arm. Another five minutes and you're sitting next to him on the floor, leafing through folio-sized volumes of poems and fine-art photographs published by 21st, the Journal of Contemporary Photography, of which he is editor.

Five minutes more and he is pulling out rare autochromes, the first color photographic images, and describing the process by which they were made -- "the secret was potato starch." Five minutes after that he's reading an unpublished poem he wrote based on a photograph by O.G. Mason, the photographer at New York's Bellevue Hospital in the late 1800s. The image shows a young man with downcast eyes holding back his bangs to reveal his forehead, on which syphilitic sores have been hand-tinted in red.

    In solemn outbreaks of the face
    the twisting spirochetes move
    at blood-speed -- microscopic
    and silent at their driven,
    predestined labors. And soon
    their swarm will be elsewhere,
    and he will begin to soften
    into bits of failing flesh.

Mr. Wood reads in a fast, fierce voice. The poem draws on a doctor's account accompanying the photograph, an account describing the man's ailing wife, their buried baby, their suffering son and daughter, and their former boarder, a woman who arrived with whitish sores on her lips. The poem concludes:

    Look at him and tell me anything
    benevolent chained us in nature's links.
    The Making only cared for life itself.
    He and his pain have been gone
    a hundred years now. Yet in that dust
    once the marrow of his bones,
    glowing like tiny, distant galaxies,
    the dormant spirochetes sleep,
    dreaming of lymph, blood,
    the long journeys without meaning.

The poem is one of a number that Mr. Wood has written based on the Bellevue photographs, many of which are deeply disturbing. He has twice won the Iowa Poetry prize -- in 1994 for In Primary Light and in 1997 for The Gates of the Elect Kingdom, both published by the University of Iowa Press -- and the University of Arkansas Press brought out his Selected Poems, 1968-1998 in 1999, but he cannot find a publisher for this manuscript (its poems are online at "We don't have tolerance for any kind of ugliness," he says. "Or disease. Did you know the body can produce horns? A sea captain had one sprout out of his cheek."

* * *

Almost 9:30 a.m., and students in Mr. Wood's freshman honors course are straggling in late. "Where is everybody else?" he demands, glaring at his pocket watch. "This is crazy." He uncaps a fountain pen to mark absences as he makes announcements. "Miss Lonelyhearts will be due on Tuesday. And on a napkin left in my mailbox I got this poem from Justin" -- a work that Mr. Wood proceeds to recite. The lines are unremarkable, but the napkin suggests a sure touch.

Mr. Wood asks the young woman sitting directly in front of him to close her book so class can begin. It is not the novel assigned for today, Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, but a volume titled When God Writes Your Life Story. Mr. Wood's students are consistently more religious than he is, but class is entertaining nonetheless. The freshmen are articulate, funny, and not in the least intimidated by their professor or his questions -- "Have any of you ever eaten brains? No? How can you have a last name like Broussard and not have eaten brains?" Indeed, they tease him. "I do not have an 18th-century lawn mower," he is forced to declare. "It takes gasoline."

"If you smoke and drink, do you think that offends God?" Mr. Wood asks after students have discussed a Mitford character who plans to become a priest. "It hurts his feelings," one student says. "The body is a temple," says another. Mr. Wood, leaning back in his chair, brings up Copernicus and some difficulties that arose from his assertion that the planets orbit the Sun. "Clearly," Mr. Wood says, "the good religious people defining sin in 1543 didn't define it the same way as we do in 2005." After the students have gathered up their belongings and left, he says, "I always hope that I have things to say that allow them to open their minds."

* * *

"We had no intention of staying here at all," Mr. Wood says over dinner at a storefront seafood place with his wife, Carol, who is also an English professor at McNeese, and who plays and composes for the harp. They are both Arkansas natives who have adapted nicely to a culture in which appetizers are deep fried -- boudin balls and pistolettes tonight -- and crawfish are served by the pound. Although he enjoys cooking and once carried shad roe to Italy so that he could prepare it at La Pietra, home of the writer Harold Acton, Mr. Wood is eager the next day to show off a sports bar named Darryl's that he says serves "the greatest sandwich on earth -- that's been verified by a variety of photographers and poets." The sandwich is a dripping, delicious mess of French bread, meat, cheese, and sauce.

McNeese, he is fond of saying, is a very congenial place, even though he is the first to admit that he sometimes yells at the president in faculty meetings. What he likes best about the university, he says in his study later, is that literary theory never caught on here. "You can still teach the canon," he says. The university has also been generous to the M.F.A. program, which usually enrolls about 10 students each in poetry and fiction. Mr. Wood sings the praises of the graduate students endlessly, mentioning awards they've won -- two Ruth Lilly Prizes, among others -- and the visiting poets with whom they get a chance to work. And, of course, the parties they have.

Mr. Wood is the grandson of a railroad engineer and union activist who named his sons Karl and Eugene, after Marx and Debs, and Mr. Wood himself was once a member of a committee to reopen the Rosenberg case. "There may be no Marxists left, but I still am," he insists, and to prove it he keeps a picture of Emma Goldman in his drab campus office. Indeed, Goldman makes a cameo appearance in Mr. Wood's longest and perhaps most inventive poem, "The Gates of the Elect Kingdom," which imagines the rise and fall of a 19th-century messianic community in Kansas.

"My mother had lots of poetry by heart that she quoted," Mr. Wood says. He has been writing poems himself since he was in his teens. "But I didn't really get any good till I got in a grad program. And the work I consider my real work developed later -- your interests and your voice develop later."

* * *

Now, though, it is later still, and he says he finds it difficult to avoid repeating himself in his poems. Over the years he has written about the Louisiana summer ("Cats grow lean, lie flat as death"), about the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (after whom the Woods named their son), about Robert Mapplethorpe, about the budding cheerleaders at St. Agatha's Middle School, even about academic life, the topic of "Hunting for a New Chairman, Thinking About Giotto" ("Even the old ones puffed with uric acid/and swollen feet attempt a briskness/now that joy comets down close"). He has a dozen ideas for books of photos, some of them involving poems by others, but of his own new writing he has surprisingly little to say.

Evening falls on the overgrown garden. Mr. Wood is sitting near a thicket of climbing roses in full bloom, spearing the olive in a martini with his ornate pocket knife. He has spent the afternoon, he says, "listening to the calamities of graduate students." He tries to make it sound like a complaint, but what is more rewarding than being needed by the young?

He sips his drink, the light fading around him until only the pink of the rose blooms shows, and the silhouettes of the trees.

Copyright © 2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published April 29, 2005.