A Poem By David Clewell

| March 24, 2010


although my parents didn’t know it at the time.

And if I knew anything, even on some vaguely molecular level,

I surely wasn’t talking. No one was the wiser, except

for Einstein, of course, taken with my small charms.

He was crazy about how I couldn’t stop smiling,

drooling in my carriage on a Sunday afternoon in Princeton—

the town my mother loved just driving to and getting out and

losing herself in, absolutely smitten. And my pedestrian father

was crazy about my mother, so even if that meant

another goddamn trip to Highfalutinsville, New Jersey,

he’d be there without fail, forever along for the ride.

The way I finally heard it, Einstein was on his knees

in a sweatshirt, rumpled chinos, and sneakers, pulling weeds—

Merely being himself, my father would say later, utterly impressed.

Einstein had that down to a science at 112 Mercer, the unassuming

white frame house where he cultivated flowers, where he played violin

precisely in sync with his favorite recordings late into the night.

Where he famously met with Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, and

Wolfgang Pauli

for philosophic forays into the schnapps, then inevitably higher mathematics.

But on that one historic Sunday in the spring of my first year,

Einstein himself welcomed the unrenowned likes of my mother and father.

This twentieth-century giant picked me up with some easy peekaboo

small talk

in the last of the afternoon’s fading light until, eventually, genius

or no genius, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I made a tiny grab

for his wildly theoretical hair. And that was pretty much the end

of our ad hoc civilization that flourished for ten Princeton minutes.

When Einstein died only six weeks later,

every newspaper ran his picture, and all at once my father

couldn’t believe it: Wasn’t that the gardener who couldn’t get enough

of the baby? It says right here he’s Einstein,

the guy who revolutionized our thinking about time and space!

And what was that supposed to mean to him, exactly? My father

wasn’t Einstein, but he’d thought about them plenty, too,

deciding in his lifetime he wasn’t about to get enough of either one.

For years my parents never said a word about that day, as if

to remember it out loud would have been somehow unseemly—

a kind of bragging they never much went in for—rather than a celebration

of wonderful dumb-luck Sunday driving, like every happy accident

in the history of science or in those classic, unlikely stories

we can’t help going back to for their mythic staying power. So now let me

put it this way: Albert Einstein held me in his arms before he died.

Sooner or later we’re all trying to explain our particle selves

in light of our own cockeyed theories of relativity.

Someone in my family—my mother or my father, maybe me—

had to embellish at least some of the truth that comes, finally,

here at the end:

my mother’s horrified

that I’ve yanked poor Einstein’s hair, and she resigns herself,

sighing, It’s time to go. To prove there are no hard feelings,

he says something Einsteinian, like Yes, but what is time?—

which my father misunderstands as a question he can actually answer

at that very minute, so he says, 5:00. And before I know it,

because I am far too young to realize much of anything,

everyone’s in a sudden hurry back into their uncertain futures,

as if this whole thing never quite honestly happened, and in no time

it’s fifty years later, and I’m the one still alive, all that’s left

of the story, telling myself: Yes, it did. No, it didn’t. No, it did.

(David Clewell, professor, English, was recently named Missouri’s poet laureate.)

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Comments (3)

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  1. ann elwell says:

    I love this poem and it demonstrates quite rightly how Professor Clewell as selected as Missouri’s poet laureate. We at the extended campuses share the pride.

  2. Andrea Rothbart says:

    Thank you, David.  I love it!

  3. Karen Buchan says:

    I’ve read it twice and loved it!
    Thanks for sharing!