Poems To Mourn a Russian History Prof

Vasily Tropinin, "Alexander Pushkin"

Vasily Tropinin, “Alexander Pushkin”


On Saturday our college had a memorial service for Tom Barrett, our Russian historian who died of cancer last May at age 54. While most of this blog’s readers do not know Tom, I share remarks that my English colleague Jennifer Cognard-Black delivered because they demonstrates how we turn to poetry to make sense of the senseless. Jennifer pulled from Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, and Walt Whitman while her husband Andrew cited a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I start with the Ovid passage–Pythagoras’s reflections on the endless flux of time–because they dovetail powerfully with Jennifer’s talk:

In all creation
Nothing endures, all is in endless flux,
Each wandering shape a pilgrim passing by.
And time itself glides on in ceaseless flow,
A rolling stream–and streams can never stay,
Nor lightfoot hours. As wave is driven by wave
And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,
So time flies on and follows, flies and follows.
Always, forever new. What was before
Is left behind; what never was is now;
And every passing moment is renewed…
(from Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book XV)

And now for Jennifer’s talk:

What is the Grass?

Eulogy for Tom Barrett, Professor of Russian History, by Jennifer Cognard-Black, Professor of English, St. Mary’s College of Maryland

I. All is Dust

 One of Tom Barrett’s favorite Russian poets, Alexander Pushkin, once wrote this to a friend about the inevitability of death, even as we humans struggle for life: 

’Tis time, my friend, ’tis time!
For rest the heart is aching;
Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking
Fragments of being, while together you and I
Make plans to live. Look—all is dust, and we shall die.

Each of you has a cup of dirt, and I want you to take a moment to pick it up and look at it. I ask that you really look at it. That you note its darkness, its coarseness, the bits of clay and earth and stone that make it up. Touch it. Consider how it feels: cool and soft and grainy and dense. Taste it or smell it. Put a little on your tongue; put your nose down in it. What does dirt taste like?  What does it smell like? “Earthy” is too simplistic. The taste is bitter. It’s fusty, dark, de-composed—a word that means to reverse the action of the verb “to compose,” which is to form, to frame, to fashion. Dirt is un-formed, un-framed, un-fashioned—un-done.

So what does the dirt taste or smell or feel like?
It feels like Tom Barrett.
It smells like you.
It tastes like me.
For we will all go to it, eventually.

This cup of earth is our future. “Look—all is dust, and we shall die.”

 II. Tom 

I’ve never known someone who was more aware of the fact that we humans are walking dirt than my dear friend Tom Barrett. Because Tom lived with a chronic illness for most of his life, he was well aware that his time on this planet was a gift—and so he also understood that we humans need to live large each and every day.

And Tom did live large—with gusto and gratitude.   For one, he loved good food. He and his spouse Liisa held lavish Russian dinners, for which Tom flavored his own vodkas with cardamon and lemon. Indeed, Tom loved good food from almost any ethnic background—Italian, French, Scottish, Southern, and even Midwestern (though not so much the tater-tot casserole). Everything from caviar to collard greens would make Tom pat his belly, laugh his big laugh, and say, “That was fantastic!”

Beyond good food, as all of you know, Tom also adored jazz. He and Liisa would drive to Baltimore or to DC or even all the way to Pittsburgh just to hear a certain jazz musician or combo. Any time spent in Tom’s house was a kind of crash course on the history of jazz, for he was always moving to its rhythms.

Tom also had a passion for film noir and worked hard to get his friends to understand that we needed to feel passionate about it, too. And so Tom and Liisa held Noir Nights. I myself came to appreciate the corniness of the good guys, the oily evil of the bad guys, and especially the slinky femmes fatales in all of their melodramatic glory.

And then, of course, there was Tom’s keen interest in history—particularly Russian history and its popular culture. Tom relished giving his students an understanding of Russia and its culture that went far beyond textbooks. He brought in political cartoons, advertisements, popular novels, comic books, music, and he even wore his ushanka to class so that the students could step inside Russian history and not just learn about it in a cold or sterile way.

Good food, hot jazz, film noir, and all things Russian. In these ways, Tom Barrett lived large.

And yet Tom lived large in other ways, too—not just through the delights of the body and the wonders of the mind, but also by being brave in the face of adversity. He was brave through a long and painful illness. But he was also brave in other ways. When faced with a glaring inequity against someone else—be it friend or foe, colleague or student—Tom spoke out about it. And when he himself was treated unfairly, Tom held fast—knowing that he was on the side of what was ethical and right.

Yes, Tom Barrett lived large each and every day. He laughed and danced and joked and ate and also discussed and argued and stood strong when necessary.

At the dedication of a monument to Pushkin in 1880, another favorite author of Tom’s, the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, gave a speech. In this speech, Turgenev said,

[The] task of a thinking individual…is to go forward, despite the dirt and difficulty of the path, to go forward without losing from view even for a moment those fundamental ideals on which the entire existence of the society to which he belongs is built.

Tom Barrett was someone who—despite the dirt, despite the difficulty of the path—was always going forward. So he lived large; he moved forward…and he loved.

Tom loved completely. He loved his spouse and his children fiercely. He loved his sister and his extended family fervently. And he loved his friends with this same fierceness, this same devotion.

 Tom was the best friend one could ask for. He didn’t really care about what you did—but about who you were. When I was with him, I knew that it was his soul talking directly to mine. That we weren’t wearing any masks. He saw me for who I am, and he let me see him for who he was. His love was real and complete. To again quote Puskin—from a poem called “To My Friends”:

So, play and sing, friends of my years!
Lose very quickly [the] passing evening,
And, at your [carefree] joy and singing,
I will be smiling through my tears.

III. The Grass

Living large, going forward, loving completely.

I want to go back to that cup of dirt you have in your hand. Coming around are cups of grass seed, and I ask you to plant a few seeds in your dirt. Put your seeds deep into this earth, feel what that’s like, something small taking root in your cup—and in you.

It is my hope that, when you leave today, you will take your cup of dirt, and you will put it in some warm, sunny place and water it and watch it grow green. And then, over the next few weeks, you will see in front of you not something symbolic, but something true—that out of death, there is always life. And that the life we all live comes out of those who came before—those who lived large, moved forward, and loved completely.

While you plant your seeds, I will end this afternoon with what I most wanted to say—which are words from Walt Whitman, that great American poet and prophet. These words come from Section 6 of “Song of Myself,” and they speak to the splendid and miraculous power of death to bring life.

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child? . . . . I do not know what it is any
            more than he.

 I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
            stuff woven.

 Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord…,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see
            and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child . . . . the produced babe of the

 And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men…,

It may be you are from old people and from women, and from
            offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps…

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death…,

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

This entry was posted in Ovid, Pushkin (Alexander), Turgenev (Ivan), Whitman (Walt) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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