The cover of A Trick of Sunlight (Swallow Press), Dick Davis’ 2006 book of poems, shows a detail from the Château de Chaumont Tapestry Set, the portion known as “Time” or “Triumph of Time.” Woven of silk and wool, the tapestry dates from the first decade of the sixteenth century and is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Château de Chaumont, built around the same time, stands in Chaumont-sur-Loire, Loir-et-Cher, in north-central France.
The iconography is an elegant, darker variation on the theme of Baby New Year usurping the place of the Old Year, Father Time – this weekend’s allegory. In the tapestry, Youth attacks Age with a club. The figure behind them remains motionless and seems to be smiling. Davis describes the scene in “Edgar,” which carries the dedication “(i.m. Edgar Bowers, 1924-2000)”:
“A few things that recall you to me, Edgar:
“A stately ’80s Buick; hearing a car
Referred to by a coaxing soubriquet--
`Now come on, Captain, don't you let me down.’
French spoken in a conscious southern accent;
An idiom calqued and made ridiculous
(`Eh, mettons ce spectacle sur le chemin’).
`Silly,’ dismissive in its deep contempt,
`Oh he's a silly; an amiable silly,
But still a silly.’ The words I first
Encountered in your captious conversations,
`Tad,’ `discombobulated,’ `cattywampus.’
The usage that you gave me once for `totaled’–
`Oh cruel fair, thy glance hath totaled me.’
Most recently, in Cleveland's art museum,
The French Medieval Tapestries brought back
Your unabashed reaction to their beauty,
And how, for once, you'd stood there almost speechless,
Examining Time's Triumph inch by inch,
Enraptured by its richness, by the young man
Proud in his paradisal place, until
You saw what his averted gaze avoided-
The old man, beaten, bent double by fate's blows,
Driven from youth's charmed, evanescent circle:
And how you'd wanted to be sure I'd seen him.”
“To calque” is to borrow a word or phrase from another language and translate it literally, without regard for idiom. Thus, Bowers’ French is a word-for-word rendering of “Let’s put this show on the road” as he tries to start his Buick. “Captious” is carping or bitchy. “Cruel fair” is a conventional poetic phrase, as in Thomas Ford and John Dryden.
Davis’ account of Bowers’ reaction to “Time” is complicated. The poet first admires the beauty of the tapestry and of the young man with the averted gaze. Only then does he observe what the young man chooses not to – Youth assaulting Age. But Bowers wants Davis, twenty-one years his junior, to know he’s seen the youth who looks away from the beating. Was Bowers acknowledging his age and thus being self-deprecating? Was he admiring the youth’s haughty indifference, real or feigned? Some mingling of both?
Perhaps what Bowers saw was less erotic or philosophical than generational, a younger poet taking the place of a senior, viewed wryly, without rancor. In a paper he read during “How Shall a Generation Know Its Story: The Edgar Bowers Conference and Exhibition,” held at UCLA in 2003, Davis writes:
“One of the most briefly moving moments of my life I think was when Edgar read me `Adam’, the first poem in his sequence `Witnesses’, before the sequence was published [in For Louis Pasteur, 1990] and after he had said the last lines he said something like – I forget the exact words, I think because I was so touched and taken aback – he said, `I guess, Dick, you know who’s meant there”. Those last lines are:
“Children I might have had, remember me,
That, in your quiet house, your word emerge.”