Saturday, April 23, 2011

"A straggling a false beard that had slipped"

Again via Calista, a delightful reminiscence about Empson's year teaching at Kenyon College [see here for previous coverage of Empson's habits]

The Remarkable Mr. Empson

Empson was, hands down, the star of that summer. He chose, for instance, to live in the student dormitory, so that we saw a lot of him. He was friendly and accessible. Even if one did not know who he was, one knew that he was the man with the yellowed cigarette holder in his lips, even when he was the captain of the Ambiguities playing softball, as I have said; or when walking around the campus reading a book as he walked--and I would swear I saw him dive into a swimming pool with it. Once when I asked if it wasn't difficult to read while he was walking, he replied, "It's much harder on a bicycle."

He was odd enough just to look at. He was of slight build, but sturdy and vigorous. His dark eyes were magnified by thick lenses. But one's attention was drawn immediately to a most unfortunate beard, which the writer and critic John Gross once described as "a straggling appendage which began below his jaw line and looked like a false beard that had slipped." He was extraordinarily nervous, and ran his fingers through it when speaking. (I remember an amusing conversation with Robert Lowell, comparing beards: Lowell had worn one during his time as a conscientious objector and complained that he had a hard time keeping it clean: ketchup, he said, was the worst.) But Empson's nervousness was that of a person who was over-energetic and preoccupied, not fidgeting.

He wore whitish suits, unkempt, discolored, loose. His belts did not run through the loops of his trousers but ran around the trousers below the loops. And, in addition to that yellowed cigarette holder, he sometimes smoked a gross yellow pipe.

As his clothes suggested, he was not tidy. At the Lowells' afternoons, he smoked, of course, incessantly, thumping the ashes on the floor. When he finished a cigarette, he absent-mindedly threw the extinguished butt toward a window, usually having it bounce back from the screen. After a moment of startled indecision, he seemed to contemplate whether he should pick it up, but turned his back instead.

To the swimming pool he wore a flowing Chinese robe with a dragon on the back. He would walk, silently, to the diving board, stand on it several minutes, clasping his hands behind his head like a bearded fakir doing penance on a mountain, then suddenly he would dash forward, give one brusque hop, dive into the water, swim to the end underwater, clamber out, repeat the whole procedure one more time, then leave the pool.

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