"We have a lot in common, professionally and socially," Chilenskas said. "I do a little painting, although not in the same class as Bill. But I don't write. Actually, I'm not a great lover of poetry, but Bill's poems are immediately accessible. They have a certain feel and observation, and I thought if someone like myself enjoys them, maybe others would, too. So I encouraged him to do a book in English."
Chilenskas' encouragement was the sincerest kind. He offered to help finance publication costs. His favorite poem in the collection reminds him of his parents' plight in Lithuania. It's titled "Bird Cage":
let the bird fly
The form is typical of Marr's style: Lean and pointed, letting line breaks serve as punctuation and accentuation of meaning. Verse has never been freer, yet strong discipline is at work.
Marr was born in Canton, China, in 1936. His father took him to Taiwan, where he was on his own at age 13. His father had business interests in other parts of Asia. He supported his son's education, but there was little communication between them.
No literature was taught at Marr's engineering college in Taiwan. Feeling the need for some, he decided to put out a mimeographed magazine. He was force to write most of it himself, including a few poems.
English was taught in Taiwan schools, but Marr said the teachers usually learned it from books, and pronunciations were often incorrect. "My first year in college in the U.S. was very hard--trying to understand the instructors and take note," he said.
Marr came to the U.S. in 1961 as a graduate engineering student. He received a master's degree at Marquette University in Milwaukee where he met and married Jane Liu. He received a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was senior engineering analyst at Allis-Chalmers in Milwaukee before going to work at Argonne.
Larry Turner of Naperville, an applied physicist at Argonne, sees nothing strange about the idea of scientist as poet. He's one himself. He met Marr in 1991 after an Argonne news quarterly ran an article about Turner's poetry.
"I got a call from someone in the next building who saw the piece," Turner said. "It was Bill. He came over and introduced himself and brought some of his poems. I really liked them. I had gotten together a small poetry workshop in Naperville, and I invited him to attend. He did, and he's been coming ever since."
Marr's wife, a chemist, works at Argonne in environmental research. "Autumn Window" is dedicated to her. Their two sons, Dennis and Alvin, are grown and now live in Buffalo Grove and Chicago, respectively.
Dennis, who works for Baxter Health Care and writes instrumental jazz, said of his father's new book: "I was surprised. He's a very private man, never shows pain. He's always been the glue that held the family together. In these poems I see sides of him that give us all a greater understanding."
Dennis recalled an article in a Chinese newspaper years ago, "a survey of the best 20th Century writers, according to the critics, my father ranked 13th. It makes me wish I could read Chinese. Someday I'm going to be able to. I want to read all his work. I'm so proud of him."
Writing under the name Fei Ma in Chinese, Marr has won many awards for his poetry. He was also the editor of "Forty Modern Poets of Taiwan," "Modern Poetry in Taiwan" and the "Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Poetry." published in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, respectively. Besides literary journals, his poems have appeared in more than 70 anthologies here and abroad. He is a consulting editor for New World, a poetry magazine in Los Angeles. Asian American News, a weekly community paper in Chicago, has featured his poetry in every issue for the last five years.
In 1994, Marr was selected as one of the poets for Dial-A-Poem, Chicago! Dennis recorded his father's poem for the callers.
From 1993 to 1995, Marr served as president of the Illinois State Poetry Society. Early this year he was inducted into the Chicago Poets Club. Marr still appreciates help with occasional problems in English idiom, but the members all say he gives much more than he receives.
Constance Vogel, Chicago Poets Club president and member of ISPS, said: "Bill Marr is an asset to any group. He's so modest and quiet, but when he comments on a poem he offers something valuable, something you hadn't thought about."
Marr says he probably wouldn't have written the new book if it hadn't been for Turner and his group's critiques and the Illinois State Poetry Society whose members boosted his confidence in his adopted language.
For years Marr did not know the fate of his mother and younger brother in mainland China. In the early '70s his mother and brother were able to contact his father in Taiwan, who got in touch with him. Marr made arrangements to help them financially, and after three decades, he was able to visit them in 1980.
"They suffered a lot in China," he said. His poem "Drinking Tea at a Family Reunion After Thirty Long Years of Separation" says more, although equally succinct:
Down at one gulp
how unbearable it would have been
to taste drop by drop
the cup of thirty bitter years
You smile and say to me
should be sipped
Some of Marr's poetry, like "Necktie," is wry commentary:
Before the mirror
he carefully makes himself
a tight knot
to let the hand of civilization
drag him on
Some of it tweaks technology, as in "Midwest Floods, 1993:"
to shuttle Columbia
With Marr's retirement, he expects to have more time for artistic pursuits. He studied oil painting and sculpture, and he had his first solo showing at Point Gallery in Westmont in 1994. Marr's admiration for Picasso is evident in some of his paintings, an example of which is on the cover of his new book, which also includes a poem about Picasso.
Asked why he writes poetry, Marr said, "It's like having a dialogue with people, nature, even the past and future. Poetry enables me to understand other people's feelings and to express my own."
Marr dispels any notion that poetry and science are not compatible. "Scientific training helps develop keen observation and thinking," he said. "I try to pay more attention to the essence rather than the superficial."
"If there is an obligation to being a poet, I'd say it's the promotion of understanding and peace among people. Harmony in the family, in society, in the world. Coming from a family that was torn apart by the Japanese invasion, then by the communist revolution, I treasure family life dearly."
In 1986 Marr again visited his mother and brother in China, this time taking his wife and sons. After this last reunion, Marr lost both parents and brother to illness.
"In Memory of" (excerpt)
On the moonless sky
is a grain of sand
in my shoes of memory
The human spectrum visible in "Autumn Window" will make readers nod, smile and perhaps wipe an eye.
Marr dedicated his latest book, "Autumn Window," to his wife, Jane. "If there is an
obligation to being a poet, I'd say it's the promotion of understanding and peace among
people," Marr said.
William Marr will sign books and be the featured reader at 7:30 p.m. March 2 at Borders, 1500 16th St., Oak Brook.
Glenna Holloway is a poet and past president of the Illinois State Poetry Society. She wrote a foreword to "Autumn Window."