There are a broad array of colorful characters and adventures in Gill Holland's life, and he introduces them lovingly to readers in his new book of poetry, EVERGLADING: Or Time Enough.
The now-retired longtime Professor of English at Davidson College no longer teaches students in the classroom, but his enthusiasm for writing is stronger than ever. Everglading exhibits his infectious love of tale-telling and sharp recall of the many people who have crossed his path and caught his attention.
Holland formally retired from college service in 2004, but still spends most of his time in the E.H. Little Library, reading and writing in the midst of the books he loves, and engaging all who care to tarry and visit. In fact, he is donating all proceeds from the sale of Everglading to the library in memory of a quartet of former departmental colleagues of his generation-Dick Cole, Charlie Lloyd, Frank Bliss and Jim Purcell.
The book contains primarily new work spiced by a few previously published poems. While most are contained on a single page, the title poem occupies fully 40 pages of the 213-page volume. It is a long diary in verse that touches in rapidly advancing fashion on family members and family lore. The book's title sets the beginning of the tale in south Florida a century ago, when his grandfather failed in a pipe dream of developing the Everglades. There's a cross-country tour in a Ford Torino, another voyage in an Opel overloaded with Norwegian acquaintances, and musings on his high school companionship with U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain.
Just for fun and intellectual challenge, Holland has constructed his family's unheroic misadventures in the form of the heroic couplet-20 syllables arranged in two lines of rhyming iambic pentameter. In his many years of teaching he often challenged his students to "present within this straitened harness."
He includes stories of the endearing pronouncements of grandchildren, and the Davidson colleagues he treasured during 39 years of teaching. He recalls Dick Cole's scholarly persistence in researching the names of every owner across the centuries of Davidson's first edition copy of Paradise Lost. Cole then admitted of this institutional treasure, "The first edition of Paradise Lost is not a rare book."
His first impression of Charlie Lloyd was a friend's whisper, "That's Charles Lloyd. He knows everything!"
Holland loved exercising wits in pun-manship with Frank Bliss, but never could best the master. He also credits Bliss for making an academic contact in 1988 that led to the first of his life-changing years in China. He appreciated Jim Purcell as a kind and witty man who pioneered the study of Southern Literature before it became a legitimate field of study. And as a man who ignored cultural mores to build the first-ever home in Davidson with a flat roof!
Everglading consists of a dozen sections of varying numbers of poems. The sections are named as lyrically as the poems they contain-"Burlesque Budapest," "Dolphin in our Woods," "A Restless Mourner."
A Virginia native and graduate of Washington and Lee University, Holland first came to Davidson in 1961 and taught for two years while pursuing his doctoral degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. In 1967 he joined the Davidson faculty in a tenure-track position. He primarily taught British, American and Victorian literature.
Holland also nurtured a love of China and Chinese literature. He spent three summers studying Mandarin and Classical Chinese at Stanford University, then lived and taught in China and published translations of Chinese poetry into English. He and his wife, Siri, spent a sabbatical year in China in 1989, and were eyewitness to the Tiananmen Square upheaval. Everglading, therefore, is peppered with references to Chinese culture and history, and contains some translations of entire Chinese poems.
There also are many references to Norway, Siri's homeland. His family maintains strong ties across the oceans with their Scandinavian kin. Holland speaks Norwegian fluently and wrote a book of translations of the journals of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch.
The attitude of Holland's poems conveys the impression of a man thankful for his gifts, who writes what he loves and loves what he writes. He begins the foreword by saying, "The pleasures of reading and remembering are many, making new friends and revisiting old ones."
In person he'll quote verses he's read multiple times with the same thrill as the first time he laid eyes on them. He declares a sentence "Incredible!", and punctuates the pronouncement with a lusty laugh.
His love of literature takes all forms, including personal correspondence. Every week he writes letters to Siri's 97-year-old mother in Oslo and his 104-year-old Aunt Anne in California.
Holland's teaching methodology reflected his desire that students share his passion for books. He was known to pass around a text in class with instructions to "feel" and "smell" the cover. His discussion-based style, with students arranged in a circular fashion, allowed him to see faces, learn names and engage them all.
"Poetry is a way to try to be honest when you're surrounded by a lot of window dressing and hype," he has said. "In poems, you can be in Italy walking down the path to the Mediterranean and the next line, talking to one of Faulkner's cows in Mississippi. You just soar. It frees you. It's the way a liberal arts education is supposed to be-liberating."
Students through the years responded gratefully to his attention, electing him winner of the college's top teaching prizes-the Omicron Delta Kappa Teaching Award in 1994, and the Hunter-Hamilton Love of Teaching Award in 1995. He maintains correspondence with many alumni, enjoys spending time with those who return for informal visits, and teaches short courses during alumni reunion weekends.
Everglading is the 77-year-old Holland's fourth book of poetry, preceded by Pocahontas and the Drunken Waiter (1979), Keep an Eye on South Mountain (1986), and The Tao Comes to Davidson (1994).
Everglading is available for $20 at Main Street Books in Davidson (704-892-6841) and soon will be available at the college bookstore.