Cramming for my finals, Part 3. Heaven, if it exists, a poem by Robin Smith Chapman.

Heaven, if it exists,

will be made of plastic, that glowing
sky space of eternity floating above
bright colors of every size from nano-
to peta-chip—a kind of technicolor
beach—and we’ll waft above the sea
holding on to our paragliders of plastic bags—
trying to sight those millennia of gifts
we gave away—wild turtles adrift
in turquoise waters, the forest lemurs,
the vaquita; the Monarch butterflies,
gorillas and orangutans and tigers;
the Chinook salmon; Sumatran elephants,
the rhinos; the rusty-patched bumblebee
and little brown bats on bright posters
plastered on our sky-blue walls—oh,
memory, even if it were eternal,
is small consolation for the loss
of those brief, bright-burning lives—
(not loss, but murder, says my inner critic:
bellies filled with plastic, eardrums
blasted into blood-pools, reefs acidified.
If reincarnation works, we’ll come back
as whales and fish and sea anemones).
Robin Smith Chapman

Cramming always confronts a deadline, and I’ve hit mine. The class reunion starts tomorrow. With that deadline comes an inescapable reckoning: a realization that too much has been left undone, accompanied by regret – at the time misspent, frittered away, opportunities lost. Which brings me to my last author – Robin Smith Chapman. I knew her from Swarthmore as a psychology major, but mostly admired her from afar (in reality, most of my Swarthmore classmates fell into that big admired-at-a-distance category.)

In the following years of reading alumni class notes it belatedly began to dawn on me that Robin was writing a fair amount of poetry.

I idly thought I really should look into that some day…

…and after sixty years, “some day” has arrived.

An aside – obvious in retrospect. Over the past sixty years, the developed world has greatly expanded the opportunities for instant gratification. For example, suppose I procrastinate in getting around to Jed Rakoff’s book. No worries! A few key clicks and it’s on my Kindle within minutes.

Ah, but for artists, of whatever medium, that can be a different matter. That’s why instead of reporting on the whole of what by now has become Robin’s substantial oeuvre, some dozen or more volumes, I’m going to mention only one or two bits and scraps that somehow, against the odds, I was able to uncover on the internet[1].Most of her output is available primarily in hardcopy.

One welcome exception is her poem that I’ve taken the liberty to reproduce in its entirety above. I’m not going to attempt an evaluation or assessment here. For an unwashed physical scientist to try that would only detract from its profound message.  I’m sure that George Becker, chair of Swarthmore’s English Department, who let me escape English Literature 101 with a C (at probable great damage to his self-respect) would agree. But I will say this. During some of my years at NOAA I’d supervised research and policy analysis on oil spills and read papers discussing the pervasive and dangerous impacts of plastics, especially in their micro- and nano- forms, on the environment and on living things, including human beings. But none of that has hit me emotionally like this poem – and at several levels. This is true of other pieces of Robin’s work I’ve been able to access over the past few days. Her ability to juxtapose the truly sublime with the profoundly troubling is – well let’s just say it’s the reason I’m waiting impatiently for the (used) copy of Six True Things and a copy of Images of a Complex World: the Art and Poetry of Chaos that I’ve ordered to make their way to me via snail mail.

Oh, think I forgot to mention that Robin put that Swarthmore degree and further education to good use in  her day job, professor (now emeritus) of Communication sciences and Disorders at the University of Wisconsin. (Drill down through the link and you’ll discover she’s an accomplished painter as well.)

A closing note: here’s a link providing a bit of her story of her childhood in Oak Ridge Tennessee, the daughter, as she says, of a physicist/operations-researcher father who moved there in 1946 to work, post-Manhattan-Project. And this link provides a couple of poems building on her childhood experience there: Early Days, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1947.

That same year, 1946, my father, a mathematics Ph.D. (algebra) from Princeton, moved us from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he’d been on the NCSU faculty, to Sewanee, Tennessee (a mere 150 miles from Oak Ridge down over winding Appalachian roads) where he would teach mathematics at the University of the South for five years. During that period, he remade himself – taught himself some statistics, enough to get a civilian job at the Pentagon from 1951-1952, then returned to Princeton and worked with John Tukey and others in statistics and operations research. In 1955, he applied for an operations-research job at Oak Ridge National Laboratories, and successfully interviewed there. However, ORNL had made him pay the expenses of his interview travel. That was a turnoff; so dad decided instead to accept another offer – at the mathematics department of Westinghouse Research Laboratories in Pittsburgh. Seven decades later, I’m realizing there’s a chance our fathers met.

[1] Note added at the very end of this writing. Turns out, there’s actually quite a bit of Robin’s poetry online. It’s just that, instead of being brazenly thrust on web-surfers in gigabyte hunks from a few big sites, it asks to be teased out, in small individual bits, from dozens of separate links. The experience is much like the immersion in nature that Robin captures so beautifully. Stroll through the woods, and at first it doesn’t seem like much is happening. But stay put for a bit –and slowly but surely the woods come alive – revealing themselves to be teeming with critters and activity.

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