Engaged with the World

Category: Poetry

Original poetry

Enlightened Ancestor: Dr. Benjamin West

I can thank my migraines for Dr. Benjamin West.

When I am anxious or don’t feel well, I often do genealogy research to take my mind off things. I have always enjoyed learning about family history, but really got bitten hard by the bug the first time I had cancer, in 1994. I was at home recuperating, on painkillers and other drugs that made concentrating difficult, and I found message boards on AOL that were all about genealogy. And my ancestors were there! I connected with some very distant cousins and compared notes. I started learning more and more about my origins.

It occurs to me that we are all the products of our parents, who are the products of their parents, who were the products of theirs, and so on. Our parents don’t just pass genetics on to us. Even when we disagree about things like politics or religion or how to raise our children, the values of our parents are distilled into us, just like the values of their parents were distilled into them. We find that professions tend to run in families -a  certain branch of the family may tend to be lawyers, writers, preachers, doctors, architects, artists, military, etc.

An obituary notice in a newspaper from 1822 led me to him. He was named as the father of one of my 5th great-grandmothers, a woman whose origins were completely unknown to me before that moment.  The man was phenomenal, and I don’t understand why every generation after him hasn’t continued to hold him up as the pinnacle of the Enlightenment. This guy’s brain was so huge and active I don’t know how it managed to stay confined in his skull.


Benjamin West, from the Brown University Portrait Collection

Benjamin West was born in Bristol, Massachusetts in March 1730. I think of him as the Stephen Hawking of his day. His accomplishments in math and science are truly remarkable because he was an autodidact – his formal schooling lasted a whopping three months of his childhood. He was poor and had to borrow every book he read until about 1758, when he managed to find some backers to open a dry goods store. A couple of years later, he opened the first bookstore ever to grace the commercial avenues of Providence, Rhode Island. He managed to pay for the books he so desperately wanted by selling them to other people.

He married Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Benjamin Smith, in 1753 when he was 23.  They were married for 53 years and had eight children, only three of whom survived Benjamin. The 1822 death notice for his daughter, Mary Smith West (wife of Oliver Pearce), in a Providence newspaper, alerted me to him. The death notice that mentioned her father was “Dr. Benjamin West of Providence.” Mary West Pearce died in Fayetteville, NC. Her daughter, Eliza West Pearce, married Dr. Benjamin Robinson, that guy from Vermont who tested out that newfangled smallpox vaccine on his little brother and his brother’s friends and basically got run out of Bennington for his efforts. The science is strong in my family!

Benjamin West was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer. His buddies were the founders of Rhode Island College, which later became Brown University. He loved mathematics and astronomy, and conferred with some truly fantastic minds of his day. He published annual almanacs for Halifax, Nova Scotia and Providence, Rhode Island for nearly 40 years. He didn’t have the formal schooling necessary for good academic chops, though, and before he opened that dry goods and book store, he failed at operating a school. He tutored students privately for all of his adult life.

Astronomical Genius

In 1766, something would happen that ultimately would reverse his fortunes and open some gilded doors for him. A comet appeared in the constellation of Taurus on the evening of April 9. Being a good astronomer, Benjamin took careful measurements. The next day wrote a letter to an astronomer named John Winthrop who was at Cambridge College (now known as Harvard University). He had never met or corresponded with Winthrop, but was so excited about his observation he simply had to share it.

Providence, April 10, 1766

Dear Sir:

For the improvement of science, I now acquaint you, that the last evening, I saw in the West, a comet, which I judged to be about the middle of the sign of Taurus; with about 7 degrees North latitude. It set half after 8 o’clock by my watch; and its amplitude was about 29 or 30 degrees. Nothing, Sir, could have induced me to this freedom of writing to you, but the love I have for the sciences; and I flatter myself that you will, on that account, the more readily overlook it.

I am, Sir, yours,

Benjamin West

He and Winthrop became great friends and continued to write each other. For the rest of their lives they would share observations about the night sky.

1769 Transit of the Planets

Johannes Kepler and Edmund Halley figured out how to apply the theory of parallax to determine the distances between astronomical bodies.  With both Mercury and Vanus predicted to pass between the Earth and the Sun in 1769, astronomers world-wide were anxious to test the theory . Since this was the first really good opportunity to view the transits of both inner planets since Kepler’s original accurate prediction in 1627 of the 1631 transit, everyone in the field of astronomy was excited. Captain Cook would famously observe the 1769 transit of Venus from Tahiti while on his ill-fated circumnavigation and while bringing European diseases and disharmony to the South Pacific. At the time of the last transit of Venus in 1761, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who had just finished their survey of the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, had traveled to the Cape of Good Hope to observe it. All of these men used astronomy as an important part of their lives – navigating the oceans and surveying the land required precise measurements, and measurements started with the stars.


Telescope used by Benjamin West, at Providence, Rhode Island, to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. Ladd Observatory, Brown University

There was no telescope in Providence in 1769. Benjamin West, Stephen Hopkins (the signer of the Declaration and great-grandson of the Mayflower passenger) and the Brown brothers – founders of Rhode Island College, later known as Brown University – were determined to see the phenomenon, though, so they managed to import a telescope from England at the incredible expense of 500 pounds.  They set up on the outskirts of Providence. Transit Street in Providence is named after the spot where they viewed the transit on June 3, 1769. There are photos of the telescope on the Brown University website – the school still has it.


Benjamin West’s diagram of the transit of Venus, 1769, from the Ladd Observatory, Brown University

As was his habit, Benjamin West made careful measurements of the transit. He published a tract (and dedicated it to his friend Stephen Hopkins) about the event. A copy of the tract made its way to John Winthrop at Harvard, and on July 18, 1770, Benjamin West – the man with only three months of formal education – was awarded an honorary Master of Arts from Harvard. Here’s the text of the notification letter from John Winthrop:

Cambridge, July 19, 1770

Sir —

I have the pleasure to acquaint you that the government of this college were pleased, yesterday, to confer upon you the Honorary degree of Master of Arts; upon which I sincerely congratulate you. I acknowledge the receipt of your favour, and shall be glad to compare any observations of the satellites.

Yours, &c.

John Winthrop


American Academy of Arts and Sciences: the American Philosophical Society

That same year, Benjamin West was unanimously elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia – the American colonial version of Great Britain’s Royal Society. He would meet another author and publisher of almanacs there: a fellow named Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin West was still primarily a merchant at this time, and the Revolution was on its way. When full-blown war finally arrived, commerce dried up. He went to work manufacturing clothing for the American troops. He continued his studies and his correspondence with the other great minds, though.

Mathematics was Benjamin’s first love. In 1773 he wrote to a friend in Boston of a theorem he had developed to extract “the roots of odd powers” that was probably his greatest contribution to the field of mathematics. That’s right – he discovered a math formula that I can’t even begin to hope to understand, but other really smart people who could math really well understood it and lauded him for it. When he finally explained his theorem to other math geniuses in 1781, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences not only published it in one of their earliest journals, but unanimously elected him to membership and awarded him a diploma. It was his second honorary academic degree, and he still supported by only three months of formal education. The theorem caught the attention of the European mathematical geniuses, who, giddy with discovery, also published it. Benjamin West, already pretty cool, became seriously hot stuff.

He didn’t stop at math and astronomical observations, though. One of the biographies I found explained a physics problem he cogitated upon for more than two years in conjunction with John Winthrop and a Mr. Oliver. It had to do with the properties of air in a copper tube that was then put into an otherwise airless container. The qualities of invisible gases – basically, the scientific understanding of the very concept of the physical nature and properties of “air” – was in its infancy. Our ancestor speculated about the attractive and repulsive nature of the tiny particles that made up the matter of air – what we now call its molecules – and how they would behave under different conditions. Gravity, matter, magnetism, and ultimately the behavior of the tails of comets played into his understanding of the question. This is stuff my brain simply isn’t big enough to handle.

Benjamin West’s mind was at the peak of its illuminating brilliance as the world around him heaved. His most important discoveries and writings happened as the American Revolution was about to explode.  By the end of the Revolution he had returned to academic pursuits. He tutored students in math and astronomy. He still wasn’t rich; despite his prominence in academics he never became particularly wealthy. The well-endowed founders of what would become Brown University had not forgotten their friend, though. In 1786, he was elected to a full professorship there.

For some reason he did not begin teaching at Brown for a couple of years. Probably because of his honors and his friendship with Ben Franklin and the rest of the gang at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Benjamin West was invited to teach at the illustrious Protestant Episcopal Academy there. The name of that school is familiar to members of my father’s family.  Although Benjamin West was the direct ancestor of my Arkansas-born mother, my dad, an Irish-Italian kid who grew up in the Philly suburb of Gladwyne, went to school at Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy while his dad coached its sports teams. (Insert refrain from “Circle of Life” here.)

Brown University awarded Dr. West his first non-honorary degree, his Doctor of Laws, in 1792. He taught mathematics and astronomy there from 1788 until 1799. Then he opened a school of navigation and taught astronomy to seafaring men. Like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, this man loved to teach other people the wonders of the universe.

I’m proud of him for another reason, too: Benjamin West was a member of an active abolitionist group in Providence.

I’ve found several contemporary biographical accounts for Benjamin West. They are typical of their time: purple prose and flowery metaphors abound. They all reach one conclusion: Benjamin West was a genius. He was a determinedly self-educated man who contributed considerably to the arts of science and mathematics during his lifetime. He was truly a product of the Age of Enlightenment: a self-educated, self-made man whose gifts and prominence considerably exceeded his bank account.

This discovery of my ancestor Benjamin West is exactly why genealogy research is so rewarding. And given the anxiety-provoking events of November 8, I expect to be doing a lot more of it – in between my stepped-up schedule of political activities, that is.



American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Book of Members  (2016 edition), p. 252. Entry for Benjamin West, elected 1781, Fellow. Residence and Affiliation at election: Providence, RI. Career description: Astronomer, Educator, Businessperson, Book of Members; American Academy of Arts & Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Leonard Bliss, The History of Rehoboth, Bristol County, Massachusetts:  Comprising a History of the Present Towns of Rehoboth, Seekonk, and Pawtucket, From Their Settlement to the Present Time (Boston:  Otis, Broaders, and Company, 1836). Google Books

Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment, Entry for Benjamin West (1730-1813), pp. 1096-1097.

Louise Hall, “Family Records: Newby Bible”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 122 (Apr 1968):  125-128, 125.

Martha Mitchell, “Benjamin West”, Encyclopedia Brunoniana (1993).

John Chauncey Pease, John Milton Niles, A Gazetteer of the States of Connecticut and Rhode-Island:   (Hartford:  William S. Marsh, 1819), 331-333. Biographical entry for Dr. Benjamin West.  Google Books.

Unattributed, “Biography of Benjamin West, L.L.D.  A.A.S.:  Professor of Mathematicks, Astronomy and Natural Philosophy, in Rhode Island College – and Fellow of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, &c.”, The Rhode Island Literary Repository Vol I, No. 7 (October 1814):  137-160 (337-360),  Google Books.

Benjamin West Papers; Rhode Island Historical Society Library, 121 Hope Street
Providence, RI 02906.

Prufrock and Other Observations

When I was in college I took a class in poetry writing. I had this crazy idea that I could do it at least as well as many out there, and better than quite a few.  I enjoyed doing it, and kept at it for a number of years, until the responsibilities and depressing reality of marriage and work stole my muse.

How arrogant was I when I thought I could write?

Let me tell you just how arrogant I was.

I was arrogant enough to think I could improve upon the great Thomas Sterns Eliot.  In my arrogant delusions of grandeur, I believed that Eliot’s whiny Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock needed improvement.

I was just the gal to improve it, too – I knew exactly the elements it needed. It needed a dose of realism, I thought, and not just anybody’s realism, either. It needed the realism of a twenty-something wise-ass. After all, I had the real skinny on life. At the time I wasn’t bogged down by the silly responsibilities and obligations that get in the way of people with families and jobs and mortgages.

Imposing realism on an unsuspecting, conventionally-oriented public takes open eyes and open minds and open hearts! And back in the early 1980’s there wasn’t much that was more open than a female college student’s legs. (This before AIDS. Herpes was incurable, but not fatal. We had antibiotics for the rest. So free love, baby!)  Yes, I was a college student then.  Don’t assume, though, that just because I was in high school and college in the late 70’s and early 80’s that I lived a life of drunken debauchery.  Oh, dear me, please do not assume that!  Wait until you have gathered proof.  I mean, faced with incontrovertible proof I won’t deny it.

Oh, and, twenty something years later, I must really, sincerely apologize to Mr. Eliot.  I promise, honest, swear on a stack of Bibles and on my father’s grave, that this poem is not really all that autobiographical.  And I’ve changed since then.  I’m a middle-aged matron now, the sainted mother of a teenage son.  I’m a virgin, really….

Here it is: my morning-after tribute to J. Alfred Prufrock.  Or whatever his name was.

The Morning After the Love Song

Let me see now, how can I,
While the sun is still belly-low in the sky
Like an ancient whore in a back room,
How can I, from this strange room through this strange street
Make my retreat
And forget the stops nearly made at cheap hotels,
Leaving behind me the oyster shells,
The memory of a night of lust and heat
And of nearly making it in the back seat?
It leads me to an overwhelming question…
I dare not ask why I did it;
I’ll never admit it.

Beyond the door the paperboys come and go.
I think they know.

The yellow stains upon the windowpanes
Are nicotine stains on the windowpanes,
Smoky stains from nights like the last,
Lingering in the light that comes through the windowpanes.
Smoke belongs in chimneys
To be sent out over the roof at night,
Boiling slowly out of the house
Not to block the windows’ light.

Of course there should be a time
That a window’s light is blocked,
Like at night when I try to sleep.
That is the time, but not the only time,
For a room to be dark and its door locked.
There’s also the time when we procreate
And the time when our hands
Reach for ourselves (when we masturbate).
Time for me. Time for me.
I have time for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Before finding the car’s key.

Beyond the door the postmen come and go.
I think they know.

And now is my time!
Do I dare?  Do I dare?
Do I dare escape and descend the stair?
I am pinned under him by my own hair!
How can I move? How can I squirm
Away from him?  I wish he’d turn!
Perhaps slowly, slowly I can squirm…
Do I dare
Disturb his sleep?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will keep.

Oh, I remember them all, remember them all:-
I remember the evenings, mornings, afternoons.
I have measured my life by the length of afternoons,
From long in the summer to short in the fall,
From one television season to another
Secrets from myself I have yet to uncover.

And I remember the shows; I’ve watched them all –
The shows that catch you and force you to follow
Their silly stories and repetitive prattle.
I’ve watched them all, I’ve watched them all
Until my mind has begun to rattle
And my mind and spirit have become hollow
Secrets from myself I have yet to uncover.

I have known arms such as his, known them all
Arms that are muscled and bronzed and bare
(Arms that have me trapped by my hair!)
Is it his smell or perhaps his undress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along beside me, or arms that call
Secrets from myself I have yet to uncover
Because my mind has begun to rattle…

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirtsleeves, leaning out of windows?
If I had a pair of claws
I’d have torn my hair and scuttled away at dawn.

It’s almost afternoon, yet he sleeps so peacefully!
I attempt to peel away his fingers.
Asleep … he’s still asleep, the malingerer,
Stretched out in this dirty bed beside me!
Do I, after a drunken night’s nap,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have agonized and squirmed and prayed,
I have seen a vision of my room mate opening the door with a snicker,
And in short, I am dismayed.

And could this have been worth it, after all,
After the drinks, the oysters, the drinks,
Among the lounge lizards, among sone talk of him and me,
Could this have been worthwhile
To have bitten off my arm with a smile,
To have squeezed myself into a ball,
To roll myself toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Magdalene, come from the bed,
Come from a stranger’s bed, and I’ll never tell you all –
I left one with a pillow under his head…
I shouldn’t say anything at all
Nothing, nothing at all.

And could this have been worth it after all,
Could this be worthwhile,
After the broken romances and cooling of passionate heat,
After the gothic novels, after the dreams of skirts that trail along the floor –
After all that, and so much more?
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern could cast a light to expose me
Would this have been worthwhile
To expose myself to me, and tell myself all,
To look in the lantern’s glow and say,
“That is not me at all,
“Not what I meant to be at all.”

No!  I am not Ophelia, nor was I meant to be;
I am almost a harlot, one that will do
Anything to swell my own ego, start a scene or two,
Opposite the virgin; no doubt an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Easy, uncautious, not meticulous,
Full of high living, but a bit obtuse;
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow bold… I grow bold…
I shall be out of his place before out of bed he has rolled.

Shall I leave my hair behind? Do I dare as bed springs screech?
I push away the white cotton sheets, the white-sale-special sheets.
I can hear the children calling, each to each.

I do think they will call to me.

I have seen them playing stickball in the streets,
Taunting their playmates and strangers who dare to pass
As traffic becomes heavier and their Mamas go to mass.

I have lingered in this filthy bedchamber
With its walls splattered with dirty reds and browns
‘Til children’s voices have waked him, and he frowns.

9:43 p.m.

Writer's BlockEven Crosby, Stills
and Nash fail to release
the lazy suction pull-
ing her into listless boredom.
Smoothing a stubborn crease

in her shirt, she drains a final
cup of coffee and reaches
for the telephone; no
answer.  She thinks, waits,
examines her nails.  Each is

reflecting her ragged mood:
bitten, broken, yearning
to be filed.  She wonders, should
she go? Then switches on
the television, turning

channels, and off again.
Her pen begins to write
and like before, the inane
monotone appears, not
giving the shallow night

another purpose but sitting,
waiting, impatiently waiting
for words to come, fighting
the sour block in her brain,
vainly and restlessly waiting.


winding through time, remaining the remnants of
before, hollow reminders calling from every-
where, coming from nowhere, start sud-
denly, and slowly fading, straggling
away, disappearing, but held
for a moment, then reel-
ing and spiraling to
the place where
echoes hide
and die

The Gift

She was gift-wrapped just for you
in the prettiest paper she could find,
and tied with a ribbon to match
the shade of her eyes.
Her small box was taped
securely shut.  Inside
she was laid in a bed on soft, white tissue
because she was fragile, and might break.

One of many packages
under your tree she waited
for you on Christmas morning.

When you opened her
you cast aside the green ribbon,
and admired the paper, careful
not to rip it.  With scissors
you sliced the box’s tape and
said the tissue bed was nice.
You pulled her out, then with your
scissors casually snipped out
her heart, dropped it, and crushed it.


We sat and watched the leaves, and children played
In parks where flowers bloomed and grass was green
We didn’t know for how long we would stay

To wait for autumn’s golds to turn to gray.
We clutched each other’s hands while sunlight streamed.
We sat and watched the leaves and children play.

We two were trapped by habit.  Every day
We begged for freedom calmly in our dreams.
We didn’t know for how long we would stay

Together, but there was no easy way
To break ourselves apart and still not bleed.
We sat and watched as leaves and children played.

The tangled paths we wove along our way,
We thought, would give us something to believe.
How long, we didn’t know, but still we stayed

To hide in desperate lies, to learn to pray
To something other than what we believed.
We sit and watch the leaves, and children play.
We don’t know for how long, still we stay.


Tonight, I’ll level this house.
But now, to save myself, here’s a hemlock
created to keep me sane:
Valium soaked in tequila is washed away
with an Alka-Seltzer chaser.

I sit alone in a red room
Waiting for your punch line.
Your joke is not funny
And I sip the cocktail
Designed to fill me with venom.

You cleared your throat last night
In your sleep you rolled over,
Embraced your pillow.  Morning came
And you said you loved me,
Pretending I didn’t feel you
Touching her as you touched me.

Today I asked about the girl in your pillow.
You shrugged and looked the other way.
You tried not to smile as
Icicles grew around your teeth.

I take another poison swallow.
It shudders through me like primed gunpowder
And I wait to explode.

Allegory (of a Climbing Rose)

Autumn words mean September sighs
And December saying, “Sorry,”
As snow begins to cover any bare essence still blooming.
You’re trying too hard
To brush  flakes off the dying stems of roses
That pricked us when we admired them.

In springtime we planted this vine
To symbolize our love
(And to cut down on the florist’s bill).
You said to be tender with the vine;
Touch, caress the leaves but not the petals.
And when you weeded around its roots
It stabbed you
Held you
Until I could pry you loose.

Then in summer
I helped you nourish it
Because we feared drought
And we had to protect the symbol
Of our irony.

We became proud of an achievement
That should have come naturally,
And the exhibition of our vine became vital,
Just to confirm our suspicions that
Vines like ours are made, not born –
Then, of course, the petals began to fall away
One by one
Until nothing was left
But several brown extensions
Where you will finally allow
The snow to gather.

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