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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Poem: Losing what we may not know we have

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Oxford, England

Too late I heard that yesterday was the last class of one of our treasured professors. I don't know what I would have done had I known. The colleague who told me it was Tess's last class also told me that back in the day, the department's faculty and staff would gather in the hallway outside a retiring professor's classroom at the close of their final class, and then erupt into applause as a collegial and hearty Well Done. I'm sad that we don't do this now in our department, and that I didn't even know what I'd missed, like so many things that have flowed off downstream and become part of our subconscious past.

Losing what we may not know we have
for Tess
Today I imagine you
in a late April room,
oak-trimmed and bright
with towered light leaning
on wide, flaking sills

your courageous falsetto,
the tone of women
from a certain age that is gone,
a time of white
gloves and great human

decency one to another.
Your final literature class
at university, and you, the last
medieval scholar. A boy
slouches, his phlegmatic leg

stretched long toward the girl’s
desk across the aisle
where her graced contours in black
leggings make him melancholy.
You incant the mysteries

of the humours, while blood
springs in these children
like fountains, splashing. I see you
last summer in Oxford,
your white-gloved finger lifting

the edge of parchment
of an ancient book in a Bodleian
room where the same sun
through oak windows
backlights the stirring leaves

of a plane tree, applauding you
in whispers from the splash
of its heart — O blood-sap,
Our lady professor, the river
of life through

your body of work,
your gravid body, the spray
of wrinkled hair, your
crackling voice, its spatter
on heavy stone where a black

bird lifts off, wings
billowing like a don’s sleeves,
silken, rippling against the sky.





Listen to a podcast of this poem here.

NOTE: It may well be that if one has to wear white gloves to touch a medieval book in the Bodleian Library, that sunlight is not allowed any more than a finger's oils. But humour me in your bilious objection, my friends, as I take poetic license.



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47 comments:

Bonnie said...

I'm sure Tess will treasure this tribute Ruth. Beautiful.

Expat From Hell said...

"...the river of life through your body of work." Terrific work here. Would that we had more of Tess' heart and soul in our classrooms. EFH

erin said...

a beautiful woman then, for such a beautiful gift of a poem. i can't imagine being passionate about poetry and trying to teach it. you can't teach passion. or can you? perhaps it can be infectious. i hope so.

yes, why don't we mark times as we once did? why is it that our once is always fading, our way of living and marking times becoming looser and looser? it is universal, it seems, as though we are slowly and forever letting go of history. don't we know by letting go of our own parameters we are letting go of our value? how do we mark ourselves, one another, how do we show that we are here, that we matter?

oh, ruth, lovely ruth, you care so. this makes me hopeful.

xo
erin

Bella Rum said...

This was beautiful, Ruth. I love the idea of colleagues gathering outside a retiring professor's classroom and giving her/him a hearty farewell. We need to celebrate our passages.

The Solitary Walker said...

This is really good, Ruth. I liked it intensely. (Strange synchronicity around the word 'bilious' - I've just used it in my own poem just posted!)

Maureen said...

What a lovely tribute to your friend! The images throughout are strong and vivid; those in your concluding stanzas especially wonderful.

Amy @ Soul Dipper said...

It's not difficult to imagine the joy your colleague will feel when this tribute is brought to her attention.

Such respect and consideration, Ruth.

steven said...

tess must be one of those magic professors who carries passion like a key available to anyone courageous enough to reach out for it and then to use it to open the door to their own passion. what a lovely and loving gift you've created in her name ruth. steven

Linda said...

I was so able to put myself in the university hallway as I read your poem. You captured the musty sort of light and the essence of the old oak windows, the paper and the "courageous falsetto" of her elder voice. Oh, so well written, Ruth! The contrast of the old and the ancient with the young students makes a wonderful contrast. Thank you for sharing this. There ought to be goodbyes reinstated.

Char said...

a beautiful tribute

Arti said...

This is so beautiful and sad. It's poignant that these two notions always, i mean yes, always go together: beauty and sadness. The last class of a professor's career... it's just not right that it should have gone down in such an unnoticed and silent way. Ruth, you've always captured sentiments so sensitively. I don't have enough words to say how moving this is.

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

I'd like to think that Tess will hear the countless hands and hearts clapping for her in response to this magnificent post, Ruth. I love the little ways you evoke another age, of courageous falsettos, white gloves and human decency, and then its intersection through Tess' work with our age, the slouched youth, blood springing like fountains splashing. And the final simile of the black bird lifting off like a don's sleeve up into the sky is marvelously vivid and poignant.

I propose a toast for the poet and a round of applause for Tess.

Ruth said...

Bonnie, I hope she would. I haven't decided whether to share it with her. Thank you.

Ruth said...

Kent, thanks so much. Out of a faculty of 35 professors, I can count on one or two hands the number who stand out for their dedication not only to their scholarship, but to students. Tess is in the top one or two.

Ruth said...

Erin, yes, I think you can teach passion by modeling it.

The questions in your second paragraph have been on my mind since Friday (well, and before too). My hope is that in our intense looking, through writing, with the help and tutelage of Rilke and others (you, for instance), our need for remembering history and valuable traditions and celebrations will well up in us organically. We will want them, because they are right, and our souls know it. I think this is why we see trends toward vintage things cyclically. We tire of the ways of new things without the pace and attentions of the past.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Bella. Have you ever felt that simultaneous rising up and falling down when you hear something? My heart leapt at the image of this tradition, and sank at the same time, not only because we had not done it for Tess, but also because we don't do it any more at all! I don't teach, but maybe I can convince a professor to start up the practice again.

Ruth said...

Robert, I don't know if what I gave you was twisted, bilious and obscene but it did offer you some bile before I knew you wanted it. I do like it when our words trek across the miles and meet each other! I'm glad you like this poem, thank you.

Ruth said...

Maureen, I so appreciate your encouragement for my writing, always. Thank you.

Ruth said...

Amy, I have to slow down. I always have to slow down. Thank you for your attention to this, and your kindness.

Ruth said...

Steven, yes. I will always have an image of Tess's office at the end of my hall, door open, a student in the big, comfortable upholstered chair, Tess facing the student from behind her desk, and behind her a Grateful Dead flag hanging in the window. She spent hours and days, weeks and months, helping students apply for the best scholarships and fellowships, like the Marshall and Rhodes. She probably helped Honors students more than any other professor on campus. There aren't too many professors left in the world that dedicated to undergraduates.

Thanks for your kind words.

Ruth said...

Dear Linda, thank you so much for your very kind attentions to my poem. Sadly, not only is Tess retiring (and her husband who compiled the Old English dictionary), but our old hall is going to be torn down within the year. Our old oak trim (my office!!) will be gone, and we'll move across campus to new digs. I guess the good thing is that I will be able to open my window, something I can't do now with a big ole honkin' air conditioner in it, because phys plant won't take it out and put it in for me, and I can't abide working in the heat and humidity of Michigan summers.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Char. Tess is a beautiful person.

Ruth said...

Arti, thank you for feeling that, and for making your feelings known. I really felt devastated after hearing this, on a personal and individual level, and at the sociological level too. It's good to be stirred up this way and recognize that I need this kind of attention and connection. I can work on it in my way.

Ruth said...

Lorenzo, I raise my coffee mug with you in toasting our dear Tess and her tremendous dedication to her field, and to undergraduate students. May she feel our appreciation, and her own gratification, for her accomplishments and grace to the end of her days.

annell said...

Beautifully written and heartfelt. Greatest fear, to lose what you don't even know you have.

Louise Gallagher said...

Yes. This is a beautiful tribute to your friend. Thank you so much for sharing it.

And... I hope you do have to wear white gloves and sunlight does filter through because the imagery is divine!

Pat said...

What a wonderful tribute to this professor. I know she will enjoy it as much as your readers have!

Jeanie said...

What a wonderful poem and tribute to a friend and colleague, Ruth. "Jolly good fellow" may be a wonderful way to celebrate the moment, but this poem will be a treasured way to savor it for years to come.

I've recently seen two of my favorite professors retire. It is difficult to imagine my building without knowing that Bruce and Keith are around. It is indeed a loss, though a more joyful one to know that Tess can enjoy all she loves in her retirement. But yes, a loss for you and others who hold her in high regard.

Beautifully written, all the more poignant for its truth.

Loring said...

Between this and the Wakoski serenade, you have had a stunning week. Thanks for gracing us with all these treasures. You are blessed, and we are blessed thanks to your making us a part of all of this.

Susan said...

Forever in writing, forever in the heart...you should share this beautiful poem with her.

Marcie said...

What a beautiful tribute to Tess. So lovingly written!!

Dan Gurney said...

A moving tribute, Ruth, to a professor of note. It captures how the world transforms in ways that make the finest things of the past become antiquated and finally less and less vital to the new world.

It filled me with melancholy.

Ginnie said...

PLEASE let Tess see your tribute, Ruth. It will greatly touch her! She must not be left untouched....

Ruth said...

Thanks, Annell. I have a real sadness over some of the ways our culture has changed and lost certain kinds of community. But maybe young people now are reinventing it through their social networks, in unexpected ways.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Louise. I guess it is more attractive than a sterile room under fluorescent lights. ;-)

Ruth said...

Pat, thanks so much!

Ruth said...

Jeanie, there is something "wrong" about losing the best and brightest just when they have, perhaps, the most to offer. But of course they deserve a rest, and their work can be called upon in books and articles. I will miss Tess being around, though she tells me she'll be here next year teaching high achieving high schoolers. What makes me saddest though is the lack of ceremony and proper closure for Tess, like what we're doing for Diane Wakoski.

Ruth said...

Loring, thanks. I appreciate your sweet comments at Facebook on the photos from the reading for Diane. That's how I want to send out our professors when they retire. Maybe those who know Tess better than I are doing something special for her too, and I just don't know about it.

Ruth said...

Susie, thank you my sweet friend.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Marcie, and congratulations again on your wonderful accomplishment of daily sharing a photograph so beautifully for 4 years.

Ruth said...

Dan, times change, things evolve. I hope we are becoming more attentive to one another, not less. You are one whose awareness will help ensure this. Thank you.

Ruth said...

Boots, thank you for your encouragement. I'll consider it. :-)

shoreacres said...

I was most touched by this - a time of white gloves and great human decency.

Too many people imagine our white-gloved time, all those years ago, as a time of pretension, stiffness, aloofness. In fact, we far more often were willing to see one another as we truly are - fragile as parchment - and were wise enough to reach out with hands gloved in simple decency.

Whether those we touched deserved such treatment always was beside the point. We needed to treat them so, for our own sake.

Ruth said...

Linda, I'm really glad you understood that from my poem. I have felt the tension you speak of and wanted to reflect the part of that time that may have been more formal, but there were some good traits that founded some of that, like courtesy and respect. Thank you.

Oliag said...

I can hear the love and admiration in your poem...what an honor to have a tribute such as this written for you...I can feel her blushing with pleasure at it...

Margaret said...

Poetic license... ? You are poetry, Ruth, it's in your soul and I thank you for sharing it here!

ds said...

Yes, you must share this tribute; what an honor it must have been to have been her student (if you weren't, then others). The tenderness, the care, the gentilesse, if that is the right word, of the last medieval scholar.
Evocation of times past,longed for, but not forgotten, even as the young man's foot snakes toward the girl's leggings and the black birds rise like dons...