- Dan O'Brien
In the winter of 2002 I was apartment-hopping in New York City, and my previous (illegal) sublet called to say there'd been a message left on the answering machine for me from somebody named "Wyatt Purdy?" She wasn't sure—it was the thickest Southern accent she'd ever heard, she said. I was an aspiring playwright, 9/11 [End Page 740] had pretty much obliterated my day job (or my night job, rather, fiddling with charts and graphs inside a palatial investment bank), and Wyatt was calling to offer me a year to write in Tennessee.
I came to visit in the spring. I slept at Rebel's Rest and gave a reading the next day in Convocation Hall, an oak-paneled, almost Elizabethan room with stained glass and oil portraits of Episcopal educators. (Am I mistaken in remembering suits of armor? If I am, it felt like a place to house such relics.) Wyatt had a dentist appointment in Nashville so he'd drive me to the airport himself, and for the next eighty minutes we shared reminiscences about Middlebury, Vermont, where I'd gone to college and where Wyatt had taught at Bread Loaf. He discussed Andrew Lytle, Allen Tate, and the Agrarians, and I pretended to understand. I said something pretentious about writing and vagabonding being synonymous, and I wondered if Wyatt was gently reproving me by remarking that many writers find their truest art by quarrying deep in their place of origin—or their adopted home, if they must.
I drove down for the Advent semester and, owing to an infamously sneaky time-zone shift via Chattanooga, showed up at Wyatt's door exactly one hour early. He didn't let on (I wouldn't realize my faux pas for weeks) but welcomed me and my girlfriend Jessica, handing us cocktails and settling us down for a civilized chat with his gracious wife Barbara on their back porch above the sunsetting Plateau, while hikers intermittently strode along the Perimeter Trail at the bottom of their yard. Time was slowing down.
I'm embarrassed to describe Wyatt in fatherly terms, but honesty requires it. I didn't have much of a father or a mother or a family. Not long after my first visit to Sewanee my parents disowned me for mysterious reasons, but probably because I was a young writer liable to write about the mystery of their cruelty. Many nights that first year I'd pass Wyatt's house on my walk home from campus and the dark gully of Clara's Point Road was spooky (for some reason I [End Page 741] never carried a flashlight), but what was haunting me most was my sense of abandonment, of rootlessness, and as I climbed the road the light from his house through the trees would reassure me somehow because I imagined Wyatt inside silently and solidly writing—like I was writing and hoped to go on writing, though I was then just finding my way.
In 2015 when my wife was diagnosed with cancer, and six months later I was too, I had to bow out of what would have been my ninth summer teaching at the Conference. Cards, letters, emails, phone calls, even new poems arrived from my Sewanee family. Pictures posted on social media during the Conference, at the nadir of my chemotherapy, filled me with an almost jealous grief. I knew I would likely never see these people or Sewanee again. When the following summer, dazed and disbelieving, I was able to return to the Mountain cancer-free, my wife also, I found that Wyatt had chosen a quote from a play of mine for the Conference T-shirt: "Now go write us out of this mess." Whether he intended it or not, I got the message.
It's hard to believe he's retiring. Surely he's not old enough. He still possesses that leading-man mien, those swimmer's shoulders, his affectionate wit, and courtly modesty. He still flies a plane. His poetry is rich and rooted, but he has accomplished more than poetry: he has provided for thirty years...