I see him across the quad. His walk, like the silhouettes of certain birds, is distinct: alert, athletic, mit backpack, a posture and gait suited for distance, for lapping the miles, the texts. It is the walk of Thoreau, or maybe a tennis player, which, avidly, he was.
And he’s tending my way. What will this mean? I wonder because my friend Paul Borgman is liable to say anything, to speak truths I’d be too timid to utter.
—e.g: “Waiter, you’ve totally used the wrong vermouth in these martinis. Can I see the bottle? …No olive for me, thanks; I’ve brought my own sprig of basil.”
—and: “Just before we cast our final vote, this CORE curriculum is, to my way of thinking, totally wrongheaded. I’ve brought my own CORE…”
And, now, suddenly, this truth-teller is before me.
PB: Stevick! You young scoundrel.
ME: Hi, Dr. Borg—Paul. (old student habit)
PB: Stevick, when are you and that Kristi Wacome going to start having kids?
ME: Oh, ah ha ha ha…
PB: Don’t wait too long; Abraham waited too long, almost!
ME: Yeah, that’s—kind of true… What are you eating?
PB: Well, I was juicing for years, but these are locusts.
ME: Locusts?!—Oh, ah ha ha ha ha… Are they really?
PB: Absolutely, crunchy wings and all. Have one.
ME: Paul, are you a prophet?
PB: Nowwww, come on… Me, a prophet?
ME: But, Paul, the locusts, the sandals by Birkenstock, the fairly unusual camel-skin jacket, the hair shirt with hints of pastel—who are you preparing the way for?
PB: WHO, INDEED! Oh, Stevick, that’s good!
ME: It is?
PB: Yeah, Graeme, did you hear this?
GRAEME BIRD: Hi, Paul, Hi, Mark—you guys eating locusts?
At this point I slip away blissfully into the night, even though it’s noon.
Who is this locust eater, this sandal-wearer, this truth-telling, tennis-talker?
He is a fellow one meets in 1983 when one is 19 years old. He is teaching literature—of a pre-Renaissance, European flavor. He stands at the foot of MacDonald 109, looking like a certain engraving of Walt Whitman, loafing in cotton shirt and a hat—and he is roughly the same build, too, with the same manly beard, the same soulful eyes, the same famous hands. Famous, in this case, in how they shape themselves toward an argument—and around a text. Handily, sure-footedly, though the room takes on the pitch-&-yaw of Odysseus’s boat, this man bravely conveys us through passages of prose and poetry—
“Bravely” because (now hear me) in these sessions, with Homer or Moses or Faulkner, he does not turn away from what is difficult or distressing in the work—nor even from what is dangerous. He goes toward it. And asks that his charges do the same. Let us be accountable, he says, to the text, and one-to-another. Is there trouble somewhere? There we must attend. Except thou bless me, I will not let thee go, he says. It IS hard: How else can literature be adequate to our lives?
When we were young,
the petal of the rose it was that stung.
Now we crave
the sweet of bitter bark and burning clove.
So, what do we finally learn about this coy conveyor, this captain courageous?
A friend of mine, former student of Paul’s, recently said “Borgman was the ideal teacher; he made me want to try to teach like that.” So now he does try.
You know what else he said? “Paul was awesomely welcoming in his office. I loved going up there and talking books and ideas with him.” To which I replied, ditto.
Further: who has not heard Paul say, “What a life! To get paid to teach what I love—to students who I love to teach! And that’s a chiasmus, Robert Alter!”
What is more infectious than this? Who is more effective, more astonishing, in landscaping a terrain so that students can walk themselves into a revelation? No one I know of.
Several times I have gone into a room full of people blandly interested in literature, mildly informed about this-or-that book—and felt that room absolutely arcing with expectancy because Paul Borgman was about to engage it.
Our man stepped to the front. With only his voice and his bearing, he began, warmed to his subject, pressed a few students into service, picked up steam; extolled, confessed, shouted, lobbed & volleyed—and then brooked a dissent from some brazen smarty.
SMARTY: BUT blah blah blah [*your view is endearingly wrong, here’s a revision*].
PB: Good, but where do you get that?
SMARTY: From blah blah, so that means blah [*total opposite of what you think*].
PB: You may be right, that’s [*from memory*] verse 37, so can you read that out to us?
SMARTY: Sure, ‘Blah blah came to pass, that blah-blah-blah blahbetty blah.’
PB: The end again?
SMARTY: ‘Blahbetty blah.’
[audience feels amazement and respect]
Friends, Borgmans, sidemen, I have not the skill nor the learning to do justice to that scene. I will say it was like watching a prestidigitation, or a minor miracle, maybe like Nathan getting King David to incriminate himself—without the gold throne and the finger pointing. And the result was a little detonation of insight and delight that spread out and is still rippling even to this very moment.
One of my colleagues says, “Paul is, hands down, the best teacher-in-the-classroom I’ve ever seen.” Today an alum said, “Of all my teachers, perhaps all the people I’ve ever met, Paul is the one who most genuinely believes that literature not only can but should alter your life. And that we read because our lives depend on it.”
“Words draw him,” says another colleague. “English draws him to uncover the overcharged empty space of the human soul. Words are what he has.”
Words are what he has.
Which brings me to words I don’t have. Words I have not been able to muster about Paul’s willingness to look into the darkness. I’ve wanted to reflect and speak truly on this vital aspect of my colleague—
a man who has been acquainted with the night,
and with a certain slant of light—
with heavenly hurt
that wakes the heart to the darkness and into the sadness of joy.
But I can’t manage it this time around.
Instead, I’ll finish with these words. Writer. Speaker. Thinker. Model. Mentor. Raconteur. Provocateur. Defender. Advocate. Confidante. Supplicant. Communicant. Colleague. Friend. Prophet and Professor—
Paul Borgman, who, for 34 years, has climbed into and out of his corner office, like Ahab, or Father Mapple, leaving the rope ladder down for us.
For English majors, the evening sight of his high lamp in Frost Hall has meant he’s been busy—leading youngen folk on this pilgrimage, helming our trim ship toward landfall, toward understanding (through humility and zeal and faithful attention)—toward truths that are dear because dearly-bought.
I stand here, unfit representative for hundreds, nay, thousands of his students whose voices speaking together their tributes would make, indeed, a noisy throng, rising from hither and yon, from hallways, headquarters, cooperative farms, council chambers—and from the many households where the Word is welcomed to lead and to interrogate us.
It is the Word that Paul has served,
the Word written and read,
eternal and begotten.
On this day we are emboldened by his service, we are keen to extend his legacy, we are grateful to celebrate all these things, and, yes, we are crushed to see him go.
-Delivered at Paul’s retirement party in Phillips Music Hall (with Bert Seager and The Why) in December of 2014. Paul and Marsha are living it up in Florida this winter while Paul keeps writing books like David, Saul, and God, which we all worked on…