Jane Gentry Vance (1941 - 2014)
When Jane walked in the room two things happened, her headlight eyes and smile stopped you in your tracks and her dressed-to-the-9’s gorgeous sense of style made you realize you were is the presence of a radiant woman.
When I would sit shoulder to shoulder with her more important things were revealed, her great generosity untoward the world and her great impatience with foolishness. When I arrived at Kentucky, 1989, she welcomed me to my first teaching job in the academy with her whole kind thundering self. For twenty-five years she guided and weighed-in at every turn. I sought out her wise counsel and pointed opinions often.
One of the great blessings of my career at the University of Kentucky was Jane Gentry Vance. Jane often taught the introductory poetry course Imaginative Writing Poetry 207. The students in Jane’s class, who went on to 407 and 507, the courses I often taught, had been guided and drilled by a master teacher in the fine art of how to make a poem, and what to love about the making, and how to truly work at being a poet. It was as if Jane did all the hard chiseling work and then handed them over for their polishing. The foundation they received from Jane gave them gigantanormous wings. I could always tell right from the beginning who had been Jane’s student and who had not. I told her this as often as I could on our Patterson Office Tower elevator rides. She always brushed off my compliments because that was her way.
The day that I arrived home from the National Book Awards, I was sitting on my porch writing in my journal, decompressing from the surprise and trying to make sense of it all. An unfamiliar car pulled up and put on brakes fast, and then double-parked. Jane jumped out and literally ran to my door with an incredible vase of lilies and roses. I met her on the sidewalk and we embraced for a long while. She couldn’t stop telling me how proud she was. I couldn’t stop telling her how grateful I was that she had come by. She was smiling, dressed- to-the-9’s as usual and radiant in her generosity. I was still pretty speechless from the night before but I was so grateful to see someone whose presence had always cheered me on no matter what I had won or not won, whose words and wisdom had been gifts to me long before the larger world took notice of this poet. She could have had someone else deliver the flowers but she didn’t. Jane Gentry Vance delivered her own flowers.
In late spring, 2013, when Jane first went into the hospital, I stared at my bookshelf for a long time, finally pulling one particular spine down. I walked over to see her at the Markey Cancer Center, hugged her, then lay Ruth Stone in her arms. What I really wanted to do was sit at her bedside and read Ruth’s poems to her one after the other until perhaps she fell asleep. I never got to read to Jane. There were so many people stopping by to say and give and do. That was my loss for sure. But it wasn’t about what I wanted to do for her— it was about what Jane needed from us all.
In the next galaxy, Jane Gentry Vance, I will follow my first mind. I will sit and read to you those Ruth Stone poems, no matter who is waiting at the door. When I do—I will begin with this one:
In The Next Galaxy
Things will be different.
No one will lose their sight,
their hearing, their gallbladder.
It will be all Catskills with brand
new wrap-around verandas.
The idea of Hitler will not
have vibrated yet.
While back here,
they are still cleaning out
pockets of wrinkled
Nazis hiding in Argentina.
But in the next galaxy,
certain planets will have true
blue skies and drinking water.
Ruth Stone (1915 – 2011)
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