Friday, April 08, 2005

On Saving Hans Bethe

I first noticed him from the bus. About a block away I could see a frail bent form quivering on the corner. I was picking up any late final manuscripts in my box or slipped under my door from my summer intro to poetry workshop. My stop was the next one, but traffic being what it is "on The Hill" and my wanting to reach the English office before lunch (I wasn't sure that I had brought my key) I figured I could walk there faster than the bus could take me and, it was a beautiful sunny afternoon, I'm a walker anyway, and I wanted to just swoop in and out, back to my backyard to read poetry manuscripts (I never did like or understand the term final "portfolios", we're going for the first book here, and the integrity therein.) But, I'm sure the reason I ducked out the bus at that stop, after a long line and wait while people loaded bikes and a wheelchair was being lowered, was to save the Austrian mathematician and nuclear astrophysicist who worked with Oppenheimer and Max Planck on our final solution, The Manhattan Project, Hans Bethe.

I thought he would have crossed the street by the time I walked up to him. I could see him, wobbling on his crooked cane amid the passing clusters of students moving like hungry pigeons, ignoring him, obviously taking him for a drunk homeless man, or, in the least, none of their business. I could see that he was frail, maybe confused, he was sweating profusely and moving slow from the palsy. It seemed that as soon as he got his cane and step and hand coordinated enough to look up and speak, the person would look away & walk past. I kept my gaze steady and I was already close enough to touch him and saying, "Can I help you?" by the time he looked up at me and pleaded, "Help. Would you help me?" Certainly, I said. And I did.

Our entire encounter, my helping him get across Euclid from the corner of Broadway, and up the stairs and inside the Student Union where he could phone his wife and take his medicine lasted approximately 2 & a half hours. He had to walk that slow, and later, I realized that we had taken the exact route, cutting sideways across traffic, and through the side door through the art gallery to the phones, which he had calculated to be the shortest trajectory conserving the most amount of energy. During these hours we talked.

One of things I wanted to do in this blog is tell some stories of the dead. So that the stories would not die and the names would not be forgotten. Also, there have been certain encounters in my life, certain seemingly impossible occurances of circumstance, impossible coincidence. This is one occasion which left me stunned, maybe for life. The chance encounter. The Chicana poet and the nuclear astrophycist. Hand in hand. The man whose calculations made Hiroshima a misery and Hell on earth a possibility, that man and an anti-nuclear activist meet, and she helps him across the street. What made it even more extraordinary is that I saw him again, his wife was wheeling him down the incline from the Student Union, almost the exact spot where we had met before. And we talked. I was so glad to see him alive. He would have died that day, and we both knew it was true. After typing up the draft of the following poem, I realized I had misunderstood his name (we were discussing Karl Popper) and I googled up his obituary, March 8, and a video of him delivering a lecture at his "retirement home" in Ithaca. He was 97 years old at the time of our encounter.

My doctoral work at UC Santa Cruz was not in poetry, but the poetic imagination: Ecopoetics, a word & concept I coined from something the poet & anthropologist, JuanFelipe Herrera had written on one of his several litmags in the early 70s, Red Trapeze? Tin Tan? a Journal of art and ecopoetics, or something like that. I was studying semiotics & rhetoric of the signified with Hayden White and Continental philosophy with David Hoy, and feminist critical theories with Teresa deLauretis, and cultural criticism, ethnography and decolonial consciousness with Jim Clifford, and indigenous philosphies on my own in 1984, a good year to begin studying power and language. My, unfinished, dissertation had a working title of Ecopoetics: The Semiotics of the Poetic Imagination. It was to be a comparative study & analysis of two instances of cultural production and the instantiation of ideology: the work of blues musician, singer and composer, "Memphis Minnie," and the Weimer Republic, its "failure" in a certain way in relation to Hitler, Goebbels, and the rise of Nazism within the same historical period, 1911-1947. At the time, it seemed an impossible task (would I have to learn to speak German??!), and I took leave after my completing my coursework, decided I desperately needed to change my dreamscape after a painful divorce and set out to find Joy, literally, I came here, to Boulder, to see Joy, and I missed her by one day, and ended up with her job. I've been here ever since, too long past joy. I set out to become a philosopher, not teach poetry which I have always considered to be a contradiction in terms. I figured the world was ready for a Xicana philosopher. I knew it had taken me 20 years before I could, confidently, say that I *knew* anything about poetry. I knew it would take me 20 years before I could, confidently, write philosophy. I figured 50 was a good age to begin. I was 49 last summer, and planning my return for my doctorate, which meant returning to my original dissertation which had gotten bogged down, pre-911, divining an appropriate poetic symbol as "masterpiece" that could change and shape a nation's ideology in a day. The threat of planetary nuclear holocaust, although it works for some, just didn't seem to be the seme I was searching, fairly formless. ("unforma...give your fears a shape" ~Robert Hass) I was writing about Fredric Jameson's "Political Unconscious" and a critique of Postmodernity. The bulk of my writing was on the French chemist/physicist turned philosopher, Gaston Bachelard. "Poetry is the soul inaugurating a form."

What did I know from Nazis and the blues? I ask myself. What does a poet know from theoretical physics? It's a 12 chord progression.

Since then, I have had several extraordinary instances of the disseration coming to life; it walks around, like in Neruda's poem, tired of being a man; it longs to dance in real time.

It takes us an hour to cross the street, from the time we leave the curb to the time we lift up to the other. Cars with red-faced men-children begin to honk at us after the fifth light cycle. I put on my best Loisaida face and mime: "We're walking here! Waddaya gonna do, run the old man down?" when that is, clearly, what they would prefer to do. I am conscious of the fact that I look like the old man's nurse, Spanish-speaking and minimum waged under the table. But kind. I remember at that moment that last semester a student, a young woman of 20, was run down and killed in this very spot. I know that if I were alone, frail or not, one of these students would kill me to get to wherever they are going. They can wait, I think. This man needs to get across the street to take his pills. This man has a Nobel price, and all you are is late.

He thanks me, profusely, over and over again. He is so grateful he is resorting (retrograding? regressing?) to "feminine speech" patterns. "And, such a lovely lady," he adds, after saying that I am "so kind." Lovely, a word I'll tolerate having never been pretty, in any culture, (something to do with being off the Golden Mean) the word my ex used and it sounded true, so in love were we. "Love-ly." I am in love. We are getting married at the end of that month, on a Blue Moon. I am dressed in jeans, probably, I am not teaching that day or meeting with anyone, just there, by chance at that time, to check my box for those who just can not resist the final revision, even if it means losing the final grade. I want to accomodate. He says I should just leave him off at the other side of the street ("Why did the nuclear physicist cross the road? ..."). "Absolutely not." I say. And then add, "I won't hear of it," feeling rather Victorian to match his fading Austrian accent. He says he has kept me long enough, and feels bad to be taking so much of my time. "I have nothing to do today," I say, "except wash my dishes and read poetry." As it is difficult for him to manage all the synaptical exchanges necessary to coordinate more than a few movements at a time, he has to stop, an already halting crawl (I swear, most insects would have crossed the street before us) in front of a raging, pink-faced white boy, to turn and look at me, scanning me as well, as if for the first time, from my tangled mane to my shoes. I tell him that I am just on campus to pick up my mail, "late papers I have to grade." I think the look he gives me, that wonder, has to do with the fact of reading "poetry" but later, I realize, I had been talking to a man who has never washed a dish in his life, and neither has any professor he has ever known, male or female. Not to mention, the utter possibility of those two words ever serving in the same sentence. Ecopoetics=house work. "You are a professor?" "Yes," I answer, "Associate Professor of English." I learned 16 years ago, how the title is a golden key in a college town, not that any of those gilded doors, once opened, didn't slam shut again. "Ah!" he says, "then we are colleagues." You were a professor here?" I ask. He looks rumpled and crazy. He looks drunk, but is not. I forgive the students who left an old man on the corner to die. They know not what they do. "Many years ago," he says, "before you were born," he adds, returning kindness. "In what department?" "Physics."

"What the hell?" I think, and the poet in me adds, "a nuclear hell," I'm going to talk to him. I figure he will die today. No one but ourselves will ever witness this conversation. I tended my grandmother who was invalid in the last year of her life. I understand how old he is, can empathise, I imagine, with what he is feeling. Both the acceptance and the resistance. "Well," I say, pausing a moment too long in my secret in-joke, the inner pun I always seem to have going, as in "be well" and "well with tears at the thought of the lack" and poking a stick in the ground for meaning and thirst, and all the many definitions of the word, "what do I know? I'm a poet. I was hired to teach poetry workshops. Unlike Einstein, I never think in numbers. But," and here I pause, awed at what I am about to do, this breaking my silence, this hand-in-hand with the New Science; a First World chair, "one thing I do know, as a poet, is that the one thing physics, the "new physics," teaches us is that our separation from the "world" or each other is an illusion. Just like those kids hurrying to lunch, thinking that their bodies have nothing to do with anyone else's. The illusion that we are all individual entities when, in fact, we share the same bonds, being formed and broken, whether we are aware of them or not. And, for the most part not. But that's poetry, the poetic consciousness, our consciousness of matter, whether we can put it in words or not, a way of observing matter and the relations of matter—for what matters. Like today. This is what studying physics, not the formulas, theoretical physics, the written accounts, Heisenberg, Planck... has taught me, that I am not apart from anyone else. We are all connected in Spirit. So I help you. What is your name?"

"Popper," he answers, or rather, I think he answers at the time, but instead, I realize today, he is adding to my list of accounts, and/or persons I should read or a synopsis of exactly what I am trying to say, that changing (spiral) paradigm. Karl Popper. I recite a quote I just heard the other night, with T, on Dyers show from one of them, Planck or Bohr, I forget now, and I don't want to know, because the next thing he says is that he worked with them all and knew them quite "well." "A good man, ...!" and "... was a bad, bad man, a terrible man!" Remember that the theme of the day was kindness. As he spoke, I was aware of who, exactly he was, I figured he was the mathematician, as those were the ones I knew least about. In high school, and later, for my dissertation, I had read everything there was to read in English about the making of the Atomic bomb. Robert Oppenheimer, a wanna be poet who carried the Bagavad (sp?) Gita in his back pocket while Teller threw up to the sight/site of that Gonzo mushroom of destruction. Robert was Stanley's friend and influence. I consider Stanley Kunitz one of my mentors (gurus) althugh I never studied with him—physically. They both loved the Country parson whose name I can't recall right now, but I know the effect of his poetry on me in those *high* school years, as that is my particular curse, forgetting the names and not being able to recite the lines by rote; it is a miracle that I could recite the passage from ... at that moment. He waxes in the fond recall. I am able to let him know that I am familiar with those of whom he speaks, and apologize for my ignorance of him, my lack of math skills, etc., and he tells me stories. By that time, we are scaling the Lyons sandstone steps. He insists on climbing them alone. His cane is crooked at the end so that he could pry it under his foot as he steps, something about the physical texture or grounding that stalls the palsied shaking, his tremors are like aftershocks from a major eruption. He is best when he touches the large sandstone blocks that facade the walls of the institution. He walks best for lack of a solid plane, when he is balancing on the faux river-rock walkway or the jagged slabs of flagstone. I can't help but say, isn't it interesting, that in the end, for all our ego and id, we still need the earth, we need the gravity of rock to sustain us? Yes, he says. "Yes."

I tell him about my unfinsihed dissertation. I talk to him about Gaston. I talk to him (E)arnestly and honestly, all of my misgivings about the feasibility of my knowledge. I talk to him about indigenous thought, the epistomology that destroyed my line of pedigree and led to "my" epistomological, and physical, annihilation. There is barely the trace of the Indian remaining. It is summer; my "nutritionally deficiant" wrist looks black in his grasp. I tell him, again, "what do I know?" He stops, completely, makes sure he meets my eyes in the saying, and says, deliberately:

"You are right."

And how does one note that on her Faculty Report of Professional Activities for the year? Something I have been doing for the past week, typing it into the microsoft form I am forced to comply, knowledge and art and product confined to the characters in a virtual box and assigned an unknown (to me) mathematical formula of comprehension and value. I have been away from this blog, typing up my Brownie points for a badge.

Both the acceptance and the resistance.

Two different forms of matter may almost touch, shoulders apart, and something new is formed (formulated) in the wake of their separation. Does anyone know what this is called? There's a formula for it. But nothing in words.

Or, That's Poetry.

I should have said, "No, thank *you*, Hans Bethe. You are a lovely man."

The weighty matter in death is the regret at what we thought we never had the time to say.

The following poem was a series of "notes' I thought I was jotting down that day, having, I think, already talked the poem to T that evening. I typed it up on the blog, aware at the time of our meeting, and later, that this was going to be part of my series of long poems, quartets entitled "Bananas," "Coffee," "Oil," "Californium, and. possibly, "Chaya." I'm trying to finish Oil & Californium now, I'm past deadline for these books (they are all from "How Far's the War?")

I'll be inserting a link soon to video of Hans Bethe's talk at his nursing home.


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