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- by Roald Hoffman


- for Gina Werfel and Hearne Pardee

I owe this landscape another look
after your oils, friends.
I want to learn from you resurrection
of the living body of this land.
For what shimmers before me, in the distance
(or on your stretched canvas)
is not grass or brush, or this sky,
but a colored plane,
fields of unswaying ochre, green, blue.

Overlapping areas —
take that insistent redwood's jut up
— do most to flex space - that one
crosses in front of a field and a jeep track
(the unseen piece of the track is its hold on being).
It continues, up,
the top branches
(which you made me see resemble the trees' own separating cone)
up against the sky.
The tree roots "in front" in us
and draws into that front
with a force stronger than any superconducting magnet,
a chunk of ground at the foot of the tree.
Higher up,
the space around the trunk
is shoved rudely back.
We have held our hands around a trunk and know nothing's there.
The strong hummock- and sky-moving brain
loves to work over the space around trees and fences.

There is more.
From black and white tinting, grain.
In loss of intensity and lost outline
you compound "receding," make gray valuable.

And more:
the lit hue reaches for the sun.
You move the earth by darkening, 

You cover areas, paint broadly.
We are not permitted to digress
zooming in
on that mossy oak tree,
the cow that might be just a rock or a sculpture.
You force the recalcitrant (or frightened)
eye to see all, all of it, in one.

We know the hills are old, older than we are
and so we turn to them, we need them strong and there.
To come from, to return, there.
If I were to walk there tomorrow, climb,
the wind, my buddy,
would rustle oats and poppies for me,
and I could see you both,
separated by a ridge,
painting the same, always different hills.

The shadow of an airplane climbs the slopes,
revalidating their sharp curve.
It vanishes,
now swoops on another ridge.
Like a manta of the sky,
doing soft backward somersaults,
at the edge of the real
that your art
makes us see.


it comes over you that you must
walk to it. The first chance,
when others take their afternoon
naps, you slip on your old wind-
breaker, which you will strip

along the way (the way is long),
and go. Your soul is drawn straight-
edge to the mountain. But in the way
lie muddy fields, someone's fenced 
orange groves. You can't trespass,

so you walk sidelong, on dirt roads.
The mountain points, and when a ridge
blocks it, it pulls through. It nears,
it nears not fast enough. Gravel rips
your shoes. Maybe it will disappoint,

like any meeting. Then the road
lifts, foothills can be deceiving,
but you can just make out a house
at the foot of the mountain, and
distances to houses you can judge.

So you're there. You begin to climb;
there is moss and brambles. There 
is a top, as always. And a vista.
Where you came from is clear, easily
traced. And the only way on is back.

Roald Hoffmann was born in 1937 in Zloczow, Poland. Having survived the war, he came to the U. S. in 1949, and studied chemistry at Columbia and Harvard Universities (Ph.D. 1962). Since 1965 he is at Cornell University, now as the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters. He has received many of the honors of his profession, including the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (shared with Kenichi Fukui). And, as a writer, Hoffmann has carved out a land between science, poetry, and philosophy, through many essays and three books, Chemistry Imagined with artist Vivian Torrence, The Same and Not the Same and Old Wine (translated into six languages), New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition, with Shira Leibowitz Schmidt. Hoffmann is also an accomplished poet and playwright. He began writing poetry in the mid-1970s, eventually publishing the first of a number of collections, The Metamict State, in 1987, followed three years later by Gaps and Verges, then Memory Effects (1999), Soliton (2002), and most recently, in Spanish, Catalista. He has also co-written a play with fellow chemist Carl Djerassi, entitled Oxygen, which has been performed worldwide, translated into ten languages. A second play by Roald Hoffmann, Should’ve, had its initial workshop production in Edmonton, Canada in 2006. Unadvertised, a monthly cabaret Roald runs at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, “Entertaining Science,” has become the hot cheap ticket in NYC.
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