SEEING GENE, MANY TIMES
by Peter Makuck
I have always admired people of unusual talent and intelligence who are self-effacing, listen, and don’t talk about themselves every two minutes. Eugene England was just such a person. He was also exceedingly friendly, open, and generous. I loved his laugh, squinty eyes, and wide beaming smile. Along with others, he made me feel comfortable in a culture very new to me when I was a visiting writer at BYU in 1990–91. Especially welcoming was a gathering that he and Charlotte had at their home so that I might informally meet other members of the faculty.
A busy man, Gene would nonetheless stop at my office for the occasional chat. Well, “chat” is the wrong word. He wasn’t really one for small talk. When he learned I had occasionally taught Shakespeare courses, our discussions of contemporary poetry drifted back to the Bard. I thought my reading of the 154 sonnets was fairly solid until, that is, Gene had me look at certain numbers in a slightly different, more interesting way. Academics can be competitive when it comes to critical analysis of a poem, play, or novel, but it was never that the case with Gene. Discussion, for him, was meant to promote light rather than heat.
One summer in London, Phyllis and I were able to spend a day with Charlotte and Gene. Henry V was playing at the time, so we got tickets and attended a fine performance. Here again, Gene had compelling things to say about the father/son theme that he related insightfully to several other important plays. We also attended a Réné Magritte exhibit, Gene being more available than ever, not preoccupied, as he often was at BYU, with pressing church matters.
Even though I’m not a church member, he and I on a number of occasions talked in general about theology, organized religion, and matters of faith. The depth of his belief and commitment was impressive. That he was willing to stand behind his beliefs and values, and did—even if he had to pay a considerable price—was more impressive still.
He and I put together a collection of essays—An Open World— on the poetry and fiction of Leslie Norris, but the idea for the book was entirely Gene’s, a generous one in many ways. He recruited me because he thought that, as a journal editor, I had more contacts in the world of contemporary poetry. I remember sitting down with him when we made a list of potential contributors. We laughed a lot about a bizarre phone conversation I recently had with James Dickey, who in the end failed to deliver an essay. After the contributions were submitted, we divided the editing responsibilities and correspondence. By then I was back in North Carolina and we were having long distance editorial conversations that often lasted more than an hour. Gene was a grand master of staying on task and we managed to accomplish a great deal during those phone meetings.
When I returned to Utah for the spring semester of 2000, an hour-long television program about Leslie Norris was in the making by KBYU. Gene and I were among those to be interviewed about Leslie’s work. Our appointment at the television studio was for ten o’clock one weekday morning. I arrived wearing a necktie but for some reason not a sport jacket, and the program directors wanted to see me in one. Rather than have me drive back to the apartment to retrieve mine, Gene loaned me his, and so began the comedy of our taking turns with the jacket. “Cut! Scene Two. My turn!” one of us would yell. This had us all laughing and me asking Gene how much he was going to charge me for the rental. Since we appear five or ten minutes apart in the film, I doubt viewers ever noticed or said, “Hey, those guys have identical sport jackets!” But whenever I look at the DVD, it has me laughing all over again.
The last time I saw Gene was the afternoon I gave a poetry reading on campus. He sat in the front row, right below the stage. As usual, he had generous things to say about my poems and reading. Afterward, at the reception, while we were talking about a film version of Hamlet, someone came up to our group and asked me to sign a book. After talking to the student and signing the book, I turned about to look for Gene, but he was gone. No matter, I thought, I’ll be seeing him again. And in a way I have, many times.