A Poem in Process: #9–April 9, 2016

Number 9

Solace, But…
(In Memoriam David Hugh Porter)

It’s not everyone’s  cup of tea,
The elegy—
Part dirge, part sea chantey—
With music of melancholy,
Soul’s threnody.

Leslie Schultz

At the outset of this thirty-day embarkation, I promised to post “the catch of the day.” Now, on the ninth day of this National Poetry Writing Month Challenge, as David Porter himself, knowing poems are sometimes called “complaints,” might have said,” Here the kvetch of the day”.

Nine is a number that symbolizes completion, and I am dedicating this post to the most complete life I have witnessed. David died suddenly, in medias res, on March 26. I spent yesterday afternoon rereading his obituary, “Death of a Renaissance Man” and then watching his memorial service in real time, streamed from Skidmore College where he was president emeritus. For those of you who did not cross paths with him in life, both the obituary and the video clip of the memorial service will help you make his acquaintance.

When I mutual friend emailed me news of his passing a week ago, I was taken by surprise, not only by the news, but by how bereft I felt. I worked with David and his second wife, Helen, for only a bit over a year, when I was a new hire in the Carleton College Development Office. Then he was a professor of Classics and Music (a rare double appointment) and had just been made Carleton’s interim president during the search for Robert Edwards replacement and Helen was in charge of the president’s office. New to my job, which took me regularly to them for guidance or signatures, I came to treasure Helen’s calm and experience (and eagle eye for textual error and self-deprecating humor) as well as David’s infectious zest for life in all its dazzle, puzzle, beauty. His twin capacity for happiness and hard work impressed themselves deeply upon me.

After that year, I never crossed paths with David or Helen again in person, but I treasured their annual Christmas letter filled with family news, updates on professional and artist projects, and the verbal gracefulness punctuated by puns.

Isn’t it amazing? I know I was changed–forever and for the better–by a little time in this rare person’s presence. I got a little glimpse of what a human being is capable of becoming–the fun of that enlargement and greatness of spirit. And in the aerial photograph of those touched by his life–a cast of thousands and thousands, surely–I am a tiny dot on the very margin, possibly outside the frame.

David Porter embodies for me the spirit of the liberal arts, the way in which as the individual is enriched through striving, learning, insight, and understanding, so too, at the same moment, the world is a richer place.

Thank you, David, for your gift of being fully, utterly yourself and for generously sharing yourself with everyone you met, including me.


Poems for Northfielders: “Triptych”–Elegy for Jennifer Bonner

J B Boilou with Sunflowers

Ice Heart and Shoe

Each death we experience before our own marks us in its own way, but there is a special anguish when death silences a young life, one that should have held so much more growth, experience, and expression.

When I first came to Northfield, in 1985, I was fortunate to meet several times a student–a very gifted visual artist who worked part-time in the publications office, one floor down in Leighton Hall from my own office. Jennifer Anne Bonner, daughter of Robert E. Bonner, (of Carleton’s History Department) and Barbara Bonner (author, editor, and book seller) and sister to Tim Bonner, was a member of the Carleton class of 1989. My brief interactions with her on campus–and Barbara’s stories of her–dovetailed into my impression of a young woman filled with a zest for life. Born with congenital heart problems, she died following an unsuccessful heart transplant operation on December 16, 1988. She was just twenty-one years old, but she had lived every one of her years with a keen awareness of the wonder and fragility of life.

J B White Moth

In January 1989, the month after she died, I wrote this elegy for Jenny. It was my attempt to convey the classical three-part structure of traditional elegy–general lament, specific praise for the deceased person, and consolation for the living–in a way that honors Jenny’s spirit as an artist and her continuing place in this community.


     for Jennifer Bonner

I. The River

I listen daily for death, that great door slam,
to echo through the house of the body.
I know that a wild silence is coming,
without echoes to tell me what I am.

The dissolution of the blood and bone
does not come easily or slow enough,
(despite its long unfolding over years)
to catch the shape and color of our tears.

Tears fall abundantly from us all,
a slow-motion plummeting waterfall.
The water in the body seeks to join
a common cascade, like a silver shawl

flung on a chair back, like a brook’s quiet song.
The river that our dreams travel nightly along
towers finally over our heads, fills our ears,
and rages into silence, smashing fears.

When the wind has custody of the breath,
trembling sweetens into the roar of death.
All coalesces into one loud slam –
and the I dissolves to discover the am.

II. Halloween Costume

Above my desk this photograph of you is
hung in all your glory. Real gloria.
A strand of tiny electric lights winds about
your slim body, Jennifer. Your right hand,
like the nightly pulse of the lighthouse,
flashes light back at the camera lens while
your arms create your own, hard-won halo.

That October, while you contemplated your heart,
not knowing if it would last, you remembered to live
in the moment. And so for Halloween you became
One Thousand Points of Light, scoffing at a candidate’s
rhetoric but also redeeming it, flinging
a constellation of courage against the growing dark.

III.  Saying Grace

Just this:
despite your father’s daily grief,
your mother’s bent head,

your empty place at the table still
nourishes us
like bread.

Leslie Schultz

A short time later, the family and friends of Jenny worked with Carleton College to create a sculpture garden in front of Boliou, the art and art history building where she flourished. Designed by Carleton faculty member and sculptor Ray Jacobson, the Jennifer Bonner Memorial Garden balances the sense of time and timelessness, the intertwined mysteries of nature and art, that reflect Jenny’s own spirit. Below are a few photographs I took this past week.

J B Boulder

J B Cenntennial Fountain

J B 1

J B Path


Included on the memorial stele is the epigraph Succisa Virescit, two words drawn from the ancient art of viniculture and encapsulating the mystery of transformation. Translated literally, it reads “Having been cut down, it flourishes.”  Referring to the literal cultivation of a grape vine by careful and timely pruning, it also suggests the ways in which we each flourish non-corporeally–in art and memory and cherished forms and images and shared  stories–long after death cuts short our life.

For me this offers a cold, but very real comfort.

J B Nest with Snow


J B Two Petals