The Long Trip Through a Spiral Shell
Celebrating my retiring faculty colleagues with a poem
“The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.” Zora Neale Hurston
If we consider 1990 the last year of the 1980s, then I have spent part of five decades teaching at UC Davis so far, and I may make it to parts of seven decades if I teach first-year seminars in my 70s, as some of my emeriti colleagues do.
Because I earned my graduate degrees at the same institution where I teach, I have a longer history here even than those faculty colleagues who are older than I am. One exception to this would be my retired colleague Kevin Roddy, who can tell stories about his conversations with Emil Mrak, the food scientist who served as our second UC Davis Chancellor from 1959-1969.
So when I arrived at a celebration of new emeriti at the Putah Creek Lodge last Wednesday, I saw some faces that I knew from previous decades, but which I hadn’t seen for a while. For whatever reason – it might be the “big interruption” of the pandemic, it might be age, it might be that I know so many categories of people – I can’t place faces and names as easily as I once could.
But at this event, I knew why these distant friends and old colleagues were there. And because our guest of honor, Geerat Vermeij, the esteemed Dutch-born geologist, conchologist, and MacArthur Fellow, was blind, everyone in person and on video introduced themselves clearly.
When it came time for me to read my paean, my poem of praise, I was delighted to see my friend Ralph Hexter in the audience. I hoped the classics scholar and UC Davis Provost emeritus would appreciate the ways that Greek mythology suffused my quirky and poetic discussion of geniuses who famously worked with shells.
Contemporary of Hercules, perhaps Daedalus was our first retired distinguished professor.
After the inventor’s workshop in Athens,
after the exile from Greece in the palace of Minos,
after the puzzle of the labyrinth,
after the open-air cell he and his son shared
with the birds at the top of the tower of Knossos,
Daedalus was given time to reflect on his creations.
Clearly none was more ingenious.
He had invented carpentry and its tools, each of them a metaphor.
When Daedalus conceived the axe, he reminded all of us to sharpen our tools.
With the plumb-line, he taught us to measure a right angle twice before we start to build.
With the drill, he taught us to excavate.
With glue, he taught us to make connections,
to fashion with wood, with fabrics, and even with feathers.
After his flight from Crete, Daedalus hoped to lie low in Sicily
and to give thanks to the Gods for his rest.
But King Minos lured him out with the puzzle of the conch shell,
challenging any man to thread it from one end to the other.
Minos knew that only Daedalus could decode the conchological dilemma,
and that by solving the puzzle, the genius would reveal himself.
If you know this story, you know that the venerable inventor tied a thread to an ant,
and introduced the eusocial insect to the entrance of the conch.
Round and round the inside of the shell it marched,
lured by the smell of Sicilian honey on the other side.
When King Minos was presented with the threaded shell,
he knew his former court genius was on the island.
Today we celebrate our Daedaluses,
geniuses whose discoveries and creations are known throughout the land,
scholars whose accomplishments approach the status of myth.
The laurels are yours, and well deserved!
But you might also think of yourselves as that industrious ant,
for long have you marched through your personal labyrinths,
hearing the (published) echoes of your own voices in your shell,
as well as those of the people outside the lab who have cheered you on.
Now is the time to liberate yourselves from your tiny harnesses.
Come out of your shell. Cap your power!
You answer now to no king, to no court, and to no fellow virtuosi.
It’s time to enjoy all the honey that rewards you for your persistent genius.
You have threaded the conch, and long will we speak of your triumphs.
Thanks to Distinguished Professor Walter Leal for inviting me to participate in this recognition of UC Davis emeriti. I love presenting the sort of “occasional” poems that I wrote often when I was Davis poet laureate (I performed another one to close out the 2023 San Francisco Writers Conference on Sunday), and I’m glad that I could contribute to making this well-organized and touching celebration even more memorable. Congratulations, Emeriti!
I walked amongst exuberant drummers in Golden Gate Park yesterday, and met a French Bulldog named Lala (as in Ooh La La) who barked ferociously at every dog she saw except for our Margot, whom she saw as a cousin. Evidently Lala is an especially tribal dog. I hope that like drummers, you can invite strangers to enjoy your “music,” even if at the end of the day, when you get home, you play favorites, like our new friend Lala.
Thanks of being members of the tribe, thanks to all of you who support my work by subscribing to my weekly Pub Quizzes via Patreon. Thanks especially to Quizimodo, The Outside Agitators, The Mavens, and The Original Vincibles for providing a lion’s share of the support needed to keep this enterprise going. Thanks also to new supporter Steve Oerding, the genius artist and cartoonist behind the Ranger Ralph Comics. I would love to include you or your team in my shout-outs, so please consider pledging your help.
I myself will be a featured poet at Poetry Night on March 2nd. I would love it if you could join us that night at 7 at the John Natsoulas Gallery.
Here are three questions from a previous quiz:
Countries of the World. The eighth most populous country in the world shares land borders with India to the west, north, and east, and Myanmar to the southeast. Name the country.
Science. Mustard comes in three varieties: white/yellow mustard, Sinapis alba; black mustard, Brassica nigra, and a third, Brassica juncea. What is the English name for the third kind of mustard?
Books and Authors. With five words in its title, what an adventure novel by French author Alexandre Dumas completed in 1844 is one of the author's most popular works, along with The Three Musketeers?