- Mary Jo Salter
The new Sewanee Inn—it was like a dream. Although Wyatt wasn't its actual architect, I gave him credit. There seemed nothing in town (and nothing in my life as a writer, either) that wasn't raised up by his influence. As I think over his career, it seems a story of elevation-by-imagination.
In July 2014 the new Inn was only weeks old, and I could hardly believe the gourmet food and the Swiss chalet fireplace and the soaring atrium. I felt ancient that I could remember nearly two decades' worth of summers at the old Sewanee Inn. My daughters (and Wyatt always made kids feel welcome) loved the all-starch menus: corn with mashed potatoes with biscuits with breaded protein of some sort, covered in floury gravy and followed by cake. The old Inn had been one of those motel-style, one-floor establishments: not much to raze. Once the tall, peaked Sewanee Inn was erected, and I could survey the golf course from the great height of my second-floor balcony, I understood my own failure of imagination: the air had been there all along. We had only needed to populate its upper regions, with the help of stairs and elevators. And wasn't that insight something like Wyatt's, dreaming up a conference in a small town eight hundred miles from New York, and getting the country's most gifted literati to come?
The summer of 2014 was also the end of Rebel's Rest. One morning I stumbled on its charred remains: the old, historic log cabin inn with refined interiors had burned to a skeleton overnight. I thought of the three or four Conferences when I'd slept there: each time I'd been put in a charming room on the top floor. Now I looked at the patch of sky where the second story of Rebel's Rest had been. I could see myself up there, a ghost sleeping on a plane in space, and Wyatt's moving poem "The Razed House" came to mind. The house is survived by memory's furniture, including the [End Page 745] rocker "stilled / And tilting back before the window where / The first light fills your sill." It is, he writes, "as though the green world woke restored again."
Some years ago I wrote a poem about sitting in a rocking chair on the wide porch-on-stilts of Stirling's Coffee House. From my exalted perch I would stare beyond the huge, climbing hibiscus and across the street to the cemetery, which was inviting despite its unpersuasive offer of a life-alternative. Naturally I'd dedicated my poem, "Midsummer, Georgia Avenue," to Wyatt. I'd never have had that perch without his inviting me to co-teach a class with Anthony Hecht in 1995, and with so many other distinguished poets to follow. On the night before the Conference began, the faculty always gathered at Wyatt and Barbara's house for her elegant cooking and the fun of their company, and there was never an evening when I didn't newly covet the grace and scale of that house. Every summer Wyatt liked to tease me about my fear of flying. He regularly invited me for a spin in his private plane, pretending not to understand that I would never, ever say yes. I was grateful for all the ways he had elevated my life and the lives of others; I was delighted he was piloting Sewanee; but I would not venture in anybody's two-seater to ten thousand feet.
Wyatt has always been a giant to me, and that's not merely because he stands a full foot taller. I've watched slack-jawed as not merely his young staff but his oldest, stubbornest faculty have internalized and obeyed his every rule. Part of Wyatt's authority derives from his having so much more energy, not to mention generosity and good humor, than even the best of us. He thinks nothing of repairing to the French House for hours of juicy literary anecdotes (what a bank of those he has) after a twelve-hour workday...