Saturday, October 13, 2012

`Appearances and Real in Fragile Truce'

A long day on Friday working the centennial celebration at Rice University. We organized a photographic history of engineering on campus. My favorite picture is simple, true to its subject and dates from 1967. William E. Gordon (1918-2010) – professor of electrical engineering, dean, provost, vice president – stands before a blackboard in jacket and tie, chalk in hand, looking intently at someone outside the frame. On the board he has drawn a grid and written fragments of equation and these words: “Doppler spread.” Before coming to Rice in 1966, Gordon designed and built the massive radio observatory at Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

The more I learn about the university, the more appreciative I become of my opportunity to intersect in space, if not always in time, with so many gifted people. From Rice, the poet Catherine Savage Brosman earned a B.A. in Romance Language in 1955, and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in French in 1957 and 1960, respectively. Here is her poem “Plums” from Range of Light, (2007): 

 “They’re Santa Rosas, crimson, touched by blue,
with slightly mottled skin and amber flesh,
transparently proposing by their hue
the splendor of an August morning, fresh

“but ruddy, ripening toward fall.— `So sweet,
so cold,’ the poet said; but this one’s tart,
its sunny glow perfected in deceit,
as emulation of a cunning heart.

“I eat it anyway, until the pit
alone remains, with scattered drops of juice,
such sour trophies proving nature's wit:
appearances and real in fragile truce.”

In lines five and six, Brosman gently takes down one of the most perniciously silly poems in literary history. The final line restates, with a gentle twist, the hypothesis proposed one-hundred seventy years ago by Christian Doppler.

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