Wednesday, July 13, 2011

`The Sheer Accumulation of Delicious Stuff'

The most moving recent poem I know, the title poem from For Louis Pasteur (1989) by Edgar Bowers, is concise and measured in its formulation of anger, praise and love. It closes with these lines:

“I like to think of Pasteur in Elysium
Beneath the sunny pine of ripe Provence
Tenderly raising black sheep, butterflies,
Silkworms, and a new culture, for delight,
Teaching his daughter to use a microscope
And musing through a wonder—sacred passion,
Practice and metaphysic all the same.
And, each year, honor three births: Valéry,
Humbling his pride by trying to write well,
Mozart, who lives still, keeping my attention
Repeatedly outside the reach of pride,
And him whose mark I witness as a trust.
Others he saves but could not save himself—
Socrates, Galen, Hippocrates—the spirit
Fastened by love upon the human cross.”

The poem starts in disgust, with the epigraph -- “‘Who is Apollo?’ College student” – but doesn’t settle for yet another censure of appalling ignorance. “A new culture” is witty. “Musing through a wonder” – the scientist’s essential capacity for curiosity and contemplation. “Practice and metaphysic all the same” – action as sacrament, “sacred passion.” Bowers honors his heroes – note the repetition of “pride” – each a teacher by example. Pasteur teaches his daughter to use a microscope “for delight.” Educate, from educere – “bring out, lead forth.” An educator leads the teachable out of ignorance.

I reread Bowers’ poem after reading Dick Davis’ “A Qasideh for Edgar Bowers on His Seventieth Birthday” (Touchwood, 1996). Besides being a poet, Davis is professor of Persian at Ohio State University, and has translated much poetry and prose from that language. In a note, he defines qasideh as “a praise poem, conventionally in four unequal sections.” Never in the strict sense his teacher, Bowers was Davis’ mentor and friend, whose life and work served as exemplum. In the third section, “Madh” (“praise”), Davis writes of Bowers:

“A dear companion with an eye and ear
For all that’s complex, marvellous, austere
Or simply filed with an unruly charm—
Whatever will delight and do no harm.
I could not list the things you’ve taught me here,
The music, painting, poems, prose—the sheer
Accumulation of delicious stuff
That’s in my head because you cared enough
To pass it on—nor could I list the ways
Your casual kindness constantly outweighs
The claims of friendship. Knowing you has been
(And may it be for years yet unseen),
To steal a phrase, a liberal education,
A cause for gratitude and celebration.”

Note the qualities Davis associates with teaching, with “all the things you’ve taught me here” – delight, care, kindness, generosity. Teachers formal and informal, acknowledged and implied, have graced my life with similar gifts. Davis closes “Madh” with praise for Bowers’ most recent poems (circa 1994, the year he turned seventy). His final line is the final line of “For Louis Pasteur”:

“…your latest verses
Whose unobtrusive, faultless skill rehearses
Our species’ exaltation, need and loss
`Fastened by love upon the human cross.’”

1 comment:

Cynthia Haven said...