Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Grayscale: A Tribute to a Beloved Professor

Today is Epiphany--and the fact that Epiphany is also the birthday of a favorite professor of mine (I remember this because she wrote a poem called "Epiphany" and shared it with us one semester), combined with the fact that all this just happened to come up in conversation with a friend yesterday morning, prompts me to take a quick break from my book roundup to share about one special book in particular.

Dr. Mary Brown was one of my very favorite professors at Indiana Wesleyan University. I started off my first semester in her World Literature class, and I went on to take five more writing and literature classes plus an independent study with her. So to say she had a significant influence on me would be a massive understatement. 

Dr. Brown retired this spring, and a couple of younger alumni solicited submissions to put together a book in her honor. HOLY INTIMIDATION BATMAN. Where do you begin in composing a poem or essay worthy of the woman who profoundly shaped you as a writer? How can you possibly convey in metaphors and enjambment the honor she is due? (Not to mention, how do you deal with knowing your contribution will be placed alongside a whole host of stellar others that will likely make yours look dumb?)

When I first heard about the project, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to come up with anything. Thankfully, inspiration struck just before the deadline, and while my poem won't be winning any awards, I was relatively pleased with how it turned out. At least until I saw all the other pieces...

The editors sent out a PDF copy to all contributors, but after reading the lovely preface and the first couple of pieces, I immediately ordered a hard copy of This is Just to Say: A Collection by Mary Brown's Students. The collection is wonderful. My former classmates--and those who came before and after us--are so talented! And the editors did such a great job putting it all together. I was compelled to look up and contact several people on Facebook just to say how much I enjoyed their contributions. So much powerful, poignant writing--it is a beautiful tribute to a beautiful woman. I laughed out loud, I "wow"ed out loud, I cried...I can only imagine how moving it is to her. Fun stuff.

Not gonna lie, it was also fun to see my name in print. It's been a long while since I've had that privilege. 


My poem, "Grayscale," was an attempt to capture the way I entered college as a very black-and-white thinker and the way Dr. Mary Brown forced me to grow--in uncomfortable but necessary ways--into a more expansive way of seeing the world. I see so much more gray now (much more even than I learned to see in college). That's not to say I don't believe in absolute truth. I do. But my capacity for empathy has grown tremendously, and I am a lot more willing to hold a lot more opinions loosely. SO many of my views have changed over the years, which means I've had to admit I was wrong before (which means I could be wrong again). It would be easier to see things as black and white, for sure--but I've had to embrace the gray as I've realized how complicated and nuanced people and events and systems are, and how limited we are in our ability to see and comprehend reality and truth. When I look back on college, I see that Mary Brown was instrumental in sowing some of the seeds of that growth.

I've been vulnerable a lot of times on this blog in the past, but for some reason, sharing my poetry makes me feel extra vulnerable. Which is probably one of the reasons I haven't posted this before now, despite the fact that it came out months ago! But...without further ado [except a quick note: if you're reading on a phone, you'll want to turn it horizontally so the narrow screen doesn't mess up the line breaks]:


I arrived on campus secured in stripes:
bold blacks, wide swaths of white.

She spoke, and her words were thin filaments,
the spun silk of a spider,
delicate threads holding the heaviest ideas in tension--
strong enough to suspend unbelief,
expertly woven to capture poem-ghosts.

Her green pen tap tap tapped at the weak joints
between stripes, coaxing cracks across the lines,
inserting splintering questions,
scratchy ink smoothed by the curves of her letters,
the gently piercing murmur of her words.

She tapped, until the black and the white
shattered in a terrifying
and thrilling cascade of noise and shards
tinkling onto my shoes,
a thousand million shades of gray.

I was startled to discover such a world without color.
Endless gradient in the light and shadows,
how they bounced off each other, blended into one another,
highlights and lowlights so much richer
than a stark two-toned diorama.

                                Still, I sometimes wish
for the safety of those stripes,
solid lines clearly defined,
sharp contrasts far simpler than
the contours that blur into
a dizzying gray haze.

Yet as I peer through the gray mirror, dimly,
I see the beauty in the blending of black ink and white paper
and know one day, when I see face to face,
as grayscale explodes into the entire spectrum of color,
all those shades will have prepared me
for what would never be merely black and white,
but an endless revelation of gray-turned-grace.


emily said...

Oh this poem is extraordinary! Such beauty in your words and an amazing tribute.

Amy said...

Thanks for your kind encouragement, Emily! 💗