Stephen Sandy, 1934-2016

My friend and mentor, poet Stephen Sandy, died last week in Bennington, Vt., at 82. I learned this in an email announcement from Bennington College. That’s where he taught when he became my literature teacher, adviser and senior-thesis tutor.

Although life eventually led me through the Ph.D. gauntlet to my current work as college professor, I was never good at keeping in touch with my own college professors – except for Stephen. He would send me his poems, often published in limited editions printed by letterpress on handmade paper, his Japanese stamp on the envelope. I would send him my feeble poems in Kinko chapbooks. Once, he came to visit us in Atlanta. We sat one evening in my Uncle Whit’s cigar-fragrant house, front door wide open to the springtime darkness, talking about Andrew Lytle and the Fugitives. I took him to Agnes Scott to talk to a poetry class. And I took him to Tate, where he explained his long poem “The Tack” as we walked around the lake. “Chilly glimpses of eternity” he said of the lake.

poet-trio007Now these three great poets that I have been fortunate to know and to have as classroom teachers, Seamus Heaney, Ben Belitt (who taught me Blake, and translated Neruda), and Stephen, are all gone. They live on in their poems, those chilly glimpses of eternity.

The last I heard from Stephen, he was fighting cancer. The end of his poem “Around Our Table” salutes a friend of his named Stephen Fels, who died of cancer in 1989.

Stephen, you were
The message we waited for, glowing face
Like a lamp in the dark around our table.

So many Stephen Sandy poems bear reading over, and over, years after reading them for the first time. As Frost says of a true poem, like metal to the tongue, they never lose their freshness. I’ve gone back to Thanksgiving Over the Water (Episcopalians will recognize the reference), one of his 11 books of poetry. The last poem in that collection is “Mother’s Day.” Even the most obscure-sounding phrases, like “friable selvage,” if you look up the words, glow in the dark with precise meaning, a shared experience of transplanting a tree and squares of grass. This could be an homage to Seamus Heaney.


About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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