Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2011

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Six Reveries on the Occasion of the Connecticut College Centennial

For Michael Ridgway '75

by Michael Collier '76, Centennial Poet


I.


One of us late in the evening, final day of a reunion,
let's say someone from the Class of '76, midway,
give or take a decade, in the college's existence, name tag
still firmly glued to blouse or blazer, walking back to his room,
stops to look out over Tempel Green and sees
the near lights of New London, a buoy or two blinking
in the harbor, and behind them a pillowy ridge of fog
pushing up from the Sound that soon obscures everything below.
It's not just one of us standing here but a hundred years' worth,
women mostly and some men, not as ghosts but as inklings
of what we wanted to become, now retrospective selves,
and yet even as the years amass, a few of us, like this alum
with her half-filled glass of reunion-grade chardonnay
or malbec, a schmeer of hors d'oeuvre on his collar,
and wadded in her pocket a cocktail napkin, with a stencil
of the college's seal and blurred motto, wouldn't feel,
breaking through the ambivalence of return, some deep, abiding,
okay, let's say it, love for this place with its now-quaint church spire,
pseudo-Gothic buildings, absurd and slightly hircine Camel,
and where, as they won't need to be in Heaven, the trees are labeled
not with names, like JA, Cro, and KB, but the finer parsing
of maple, oak, and beech with their distinctive limbs and leaves,
shaped with care and planted with an image of what they would become
in twenty, thirty years or more, and not merely to make the place
attractive for prospectives but to cultivate a metaphor of art, order,
and ardor, a working curriculum that mirrors
an older notion of “liberal arts,” with its invitation to consider
how an acorn might contain the world and not the other way around, i.e.,
the world an acorn, because, you've learned, the World
is only an idea whose value shifts according to the business
of the day, and politics, but an acorn is always an acorn first—
truth and not a whim, i.e., “a rose is a rose is a rose,”
which means the trees' ardor is more interesting than their art and order?

That's why we're standing here above the cool, May fog—
ardor for a place and time, affection for the traced shadows
of limbs and mostly-blossomed leaves made from the lighted rooms
of Harkness and Freeman or in the remembered glint of sunlight
off Cummings in early evening when possibility and eternity seemed the same.

II.

Do you remember getting lost in the fog of a thought,
in the art of your artful thinking? Cramming it into shape
late at night or during a final on Paradise Lost,
in which not only did you think you saw the cosmos in Milton's cosmos
but thought, Ha!, you could describe it? And then you got your grade.

Do you remember falling in love with the elegant beauty of an idea?
The way Professor Cranz would hold a drawing that looked at one way
you saw a rabbit but another a duck, and asked you to imagine
two faces of Western Culture, not a two-headed creature, not two-faced
either, but the faces visible and invisible at the same time, a weird simultaneity
that rubbed shoulders with Einstein's relativity and helped you see
that you yourself were a fact of invisible visibility.

Or Professor Despalatovic's patient fervor explaining praxis as he pushed
his daughters on swings. Or Professor Jordan tangling us hopelessly
in aesthetics—Collingwood, Pater, Croce, etc.—And then inhaling deeply
on an ashy cigarette recited “On Poetry,” by Miss Marianne Moore,
which begins, you've never forgotten, “I, too, dislike it.”
Did he really say when he was finished, “I'd like to send her a mash note”?
I hope he did, because even if you didn't understand much of what he said
about aesthetics, like me, you understood his heart and what he loved.

And talk about aesthetics was that Emeritus Susanne Langer returning books to Palmer?
And with what wonderful, cracked, delicious, ironic, earnest teasing
Professor Taranow might begin a class by peeling off her white gloves
while recounting how the night before Hamlet's ghost had come to visit her—
such sly ardor—she was Sarah Bernhardt's biographer!

Or Bob Dawley, the heavy-set guy with small ears, belly straining against
a white t-shirt, directing his crew to plant the trees we see today,
the kind of man, Robert Frost might say, who corrected the world
with the black ink of experience rather than the red ink of school,
and yet “school” is where he worked and what he made schooled us
directly in its motto: Tanquam lignum quod plantatum est secus decursus aquarum
(“Like a tree planted by rivers of water (that bringeth forth its fruit in its season”)).

III.

The transfer student from Arizona
lived in Emily Abbey, his habit
was to wake early and make coffee
for the house in the twenty-cup
percolator. First the filter, like
a paper moon, then the grainy coffee
topped with a raw egg, the way
a cowboy taught him, so he said.
One morning he found a housemate
making tea from twigs and leaves
and husks of seeds and nuts gathered
from the Arboretum out back.
He can still hear the sound of the long,
thin spoon as the housemate stirred
the mixture and said without affect
“probably could use some sugar.”
And then the transfer from Arizona
remembered what his mother said
about it taking all kinds of people…
and we were all kinds in Abbey,
before the transfer went off to the shy-date room
to write his novel he never published.

IV.

Song of the First Year (A Found Poem): From the Journal of Julie Warner Comstock '19*

There was no grass, wooden planks made paths
over the rough, muddy grounds of the Quad.

Meals were eaten to the rhythm of the carpenter's hammer.
Faculty and students dined together on the terra firma…

Dr. Sykes moved buoyantly among them, pouring cocoa
from a silver pot. The smell of paint and fresh plaster was everywhere.


V.

“Shy-date room”? that's from the lexicon
of the college before COCO for Wo
became COCO for Wo and Bo
—cloak room for the cloaked male,
for the Coastie with his white hat on his blue knees,
for the truer bluer Yalie, the Brown bear,
or Wesleyan cardinal, coming
from hither and yon, the hi-ho
of the mating ritual, the low-down
of parietal hours and house mothers,
the random pairing at mixers and then
the coed undoing of the sixties and seventies,
demise of the Coasties drifting en masse
up the hill, but the making of Camels
and their plodding, Bedouin emergence
from the tent peaks of Luce, Lott, and Dayton,
part of the competitive pluralism
that is the liberal-conservative-irreconcilable-
follow-the-money-globalized Now.

VI.

Morning of the last day of Reunion and our alum
is packing up her things. Bright sun on the bare floor
of the dorm, sea scent and dogwood bloom in the air,
glare on the window panes he looks through
to remember white chairs in rows, family standing
around proud graduates in their gowns, caps and diplomas
in hand, a wild, oh-my-gosh-we-made-it exuberance
as they embrace realizing and not realizing
how this beginning is also an end, and the moment
like slack water when the forces that brought us here
are about to reverse and carry us away, but not quite yet …

And all these years later lines she heard a great poet recite
as she sat in Palmer, wearing headphones, listening to a recording,
return, vague and far away at first but then like an inheritance,
fully possessed:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

And then she remembers Professor Jordan
reading T.S. Eliot to his class and the classmate
whom she had a crush on, who led her one cold,
snowy night to Palmer, put an album in her hand
and said, as if this was the first and last moment
of her life, “Listen to this.”


In memory of William Meredith, Henry B. Plant Professor Emeritus of English, and James O'Laughlin '76

*Grateful acknowledgement to Lilah Raptopoulos '11 for her “A Partial History of Connecticut College” (http://conncollegehistory.lilahrap.com).



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