28 November 1933 – 31 March 2013
By David Park, 3 April 2013
The outline of her life was simple. She was born in Newton, Massachusetts to Alice and Charles Johnson. There was turmoil in her early life and she was brought up partly in Massachusetts, and partly in Maine with the help of relatives. Her father was a journalist and this influenced her avocation. She attended the University of Maine and then Northeastern University where she obtained a degree in Literature. She married me, an electrical engineer who had graduated from M.I.T. She had initially worked at a Boston business magazine writing blurbs and as a girl Friday. After marriage she lived in Topsfield, Massachusetts and wrote profiles of outstanding people in the North Shore area of Boston. She later moved to Maryland with me and spent the rest of her life there. She wrote poetry and translations of French and German poetry and was published in The Lyric, The Formalist, Hellas, Blue Unicorn and Cricket. At age 76 she required a hip operation and with additional complications at age 79 she was overwhelmed and succumbed.
Such a brief summary can hardly give a true picture of the weave and value of her life. Poetry and culture were her true measure. Alice was so good natured and unassuming that she was often underestimated. In the last few years I have come to understand how beautifully crafted her poems are. Here is an example from a Rilke sonnet.
I present first a translation that I purloined from the Rilke volume of Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets. It is Sonnet XIII from the second series of Sonnets to Orpheus.
Anticipate all farewells, as were they behind you
now, like the winter going past.
For through some winter you feel such wintriness
your then out-wintering heart will always outlast.
Dead everymore in Eurydice, mount with more singing,
Mount to relation more pure with more celebrant,
Here, in this realm of the dwindlers and dregs,
be a ringing
glass, which has, even though shivered to pieces,
Be – and, perceiving in that which is being’s negation
merely the infinite ground of your fervent, vibration,
beat, through this never-again, to the fullest amount.
To the stock of used-up, as well as of dumb and decaying
things within copious Nature, those sums beyond
count yourself joyfully in and destroy the account.
The following is Alice’s translation.
Be ahead of all departures,
Even the winter that just passed.
Beneath that winter lies more winter;
Put them behind you at long last.
Be ever lost to Eurydice;
Your rhythmic patterns are the path.
Take those steps toward new connections.
You know there is no going back.
Like the cup that shatters as it rings,
Be both sound and implication;
Hear the rounds of oscillations.
Let Nature speak in measured tones.
Adapt and live, resilient ones:
Watch young oaks bending with the winds.
Alice was very proud of that last line. She abandoned the strict twelve syllable sonnet form but kept meter and rhyme. For Alice it was always the image that must be translated, an image that would pierce through the surface of things and communicate the idea and meaning. She always tried to write a few lines, especially at the end of a poem, that had punch – and she could do it. “Adapt and live, resilient ones: watch young oaks bending with the winds” or “But you will carry the winds and open spaces” or “Perhaps she knows her future lies in never-spoken thoughts and no surprise” (with a double meaning) or “and like a poet she sings of the willow and flowering peach” or “A shape appears before his eyes. It passes through the suddenly taut limbs, goes to the very inmost heart, and dies”. Just look at the endings of almost any of her poems on our web page and appreciate the talent.
For many years we would read together for an hour every evening. Well, I would do the reading because it was good for me and it gave Alice easier access to regular print books. We read some novels and history and some of Plato’s dialogs, but more and more we gravitated to science books for general readership. Alice loved techies. She loved the few times I went to Mathematica conferences and she could sit in a roomful of them. We would watch the Leonard Susskind lectures on physics from Stanford University. She liked to see how he presented material, how he would answer questions, and how he always brought something to eat. She even picked up some physics, but who wouldn’t?
In school she was always poor at algebra. She tried to take it up in middle age but with the usual results. “It says the answer is 5 but it can’t be.” “Why not?” “Because I don’t like its shape!” Could there be an uglier digit? She was an expert at numerical morphology but that was the wrong talent.
She bought Mahlon Hoagland’s The Way Life Works, a popular but substantial book on molecular biology. It had fairly nice size print, “with lots of white space around the lines”, and wonderful illustrations. She loved that book and read it through several times and studied it often. It was still sitting on the current reading table at the time of her death.
Alice bought a number of The Great Courses. She was especially enthralled with Robert M. Hazen’s The Joy of Science. “He is so enthusiastic. He practically jumps up and down saying: Look at this!” Yes, look at the image, look at the idea, and look at the world. She insisted she would watch it again with me.
When reading together I would often try to explain something in my own words. Sometimes I would forget, say, the name of a scientist or of some scientific concept and Alice would come up with it. This would also happen with foreign words and phrases, or the identity of people in the arts and literature. The first time this happened I looked surprised and Alice said “Do I frighten you (with my brilliance)?” What could I answer but “Yes”? This became a kind of game that we played and Alice enjoyed it immensely.
So although Alice was a practitioner of only one of C.P. Snow’s two cultures, she was interested in, liked, and knew quite a bit about both cultures. We just assumed that there was really only one culture. She influenced me to read poetry. I read several translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I learned to appreciate poems such as Shelley’s Ozymandias (Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away) or Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach (Where ignorant armies clash by night). It is image, always image. We read together Robert Fagles` translation, probably the best, of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. This spilled over into my late age avocation, writing mathematical applications with Mathematica. I just couldn’t understand why people didn’t want to write literate Mathematica notebooks, with spare and elegant graphics and presentations, and with textual material that ties to the larger world. Alice taught me more than I ever taught her. Her unassuming manner and the foibles of her father’s illness tended to conceal her real interior knowledge.
One of her later poetic efforts was a translation of the complete set of sonnets by Louise Labé, a 16th century French poetess. This brought her some little notice because they are the only, or one of the few, complete translations on the web. Mark di Suvero, a sculptor, included one of her sonnets in his coffee table Dreambook. In 2011 the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra gave the UK premier of a work Sonnets for countertenor and orchestra by Marc-André Dalbavie based on six of the Labé sonnets. They needed English translations for the program and Alice gave her permission. Well, it was a captive audience of 600 readers and so perhaps worth it. Her only payment was four copies of the program, but she treasured it and it made her feel so proud – and me too.
In her entire career Alice earned only about $100 dollars from her poetry. Such is the status of poetry in the United States today. Can you name a well-known living American poet?
She always wanted to draw, but influenced by her father she concentrated on writing. Only at age 76, finding the poetry and reading difficult, did she take up drawing. She gravitated toward botanical drawing, certainly a field that melds the two cultures into one. Edward Tufte, the great designer of data presentations writes: “Those who discover an explanation are often those who construct its representation.” The great Spanish neural anatomist, Santiago Ramón y Cajal wrote: “As with the lover who discovers new perfections every day in the woman he adores, he who studies an object with an endless sense of pleasure finally discerns interesting details and unusual properties… It is not without reason that all great observers are skillful at drawing.” Alice never thought that she possessed a natural talent at anything. She always knew she had to work at it and did. I think she might have gotten good at drawing if she had been given the time.
We enjoyed watching opera, especially the Placido Domingo, Julia Migenes-Johnson DVD version of Carmen. Alice’s favorite movie in her last years was The Painted Vail, a Somerset Maugham story about a young woman compelled to grow up. I think she liked the techie aspect of it. Her favorite book was The Art of Living by André Maurois. I believe I unknowingly and greatly benefited from that book.
The last three years were very difficult for both of us, and certainly for her. We learned some of the shortcomings of American medicine. Individual doctors may have been good, but several times a doctor’s assistant stood in front of me, place her hands horizontally at two close by levels, and said “We only deal with matters between here and here.” Fine, but it is the entire person who must recover and who takes care of that and integrates it with the particular case?
Twice in the last three years I brought Alice home from a nursing home “against medical advice”. The first time they certified to Medicare that Alice was not capable of further improvement. She was to just sit in a recliner in the hall the rest of her life. She came home and the ensuing year was fairly satisfactory. She never gave up and worked to regain skills. She could take care of herself, do the stairs, take a shower, get dishes out, rinse them and put them in the dishwasher, and put most of them away in the morning. She could walk outside on my arm and we went shopping together. She could get out her considerable pills and vitamins, mostly correctly. She worked on her drawing and we still read together and played our game.
The second time I brought her home AMA was this March after an emergency operation. She hated the rehab nursing home and begged me to bring her home. She left, after a fall, badly bruised and broken, in body and spirit. She was never able to recover from that. I bettered Orpheus by saving her once, but I couldn’t do it twice.
I like to think that Alice’s translation of Rilke’s Sonnet XIII is a message she left for all those she loved. Just substitute your particular interest for Orpheus’ music. “Adapt and live, resilient ones: watch young oaks bending with the winds.”