When writers send their work into the world, they never know how it will be received. This unpredictability can be a source of frustration or, less often, delight. An example of the latter is a poem I recently received from Nestor Diaz de Villegas, a Cuban-born poet living in the United States. The poem was inspired by a scene in The End of Science, a new edition of which was published this year, in which I carry Stephen Hawking in my arms. The episode took place at a Nobel symposium on “The Birth and Early Evolution of the Universe” held in 1990 in Graftvallen, Sweden.
Nestor wrote his poem in Spanish, and it has been published online by Letras Libras. I don’t know Spanish, so he sent me an English translation. He writes: “The rhyme of this poem, as well as the rhythm is lost in translation; I only hope I was able to transmit the general idea.” Below is the translated poem and, below that, my description of the Hawking encounter, which I slipped into my book’s endnotes. I like Nestor’s description better.
“John Horgan Carrying Stephen Hawking in His Arms”
By Nestor Diaz de Villegas
From the arch to the arbor there were thirty paces.
The nurse asked me to carry him in my arms:
in my arms I did carry him, a deceiving assertion
for neuromythological. The yellowing road
of the Uppsala fall sent us back to Seville.
He weighed much less –I discovered, appalled–
than Nothingness, less than the hollow of fallen leaves;
less than a Castile soap wrapped in pallid sheets
of an Irish newspaper. Actually, much less
than an old issue of Die Naturwissenschaften. His chin
couched in a knot of cravats and stubble.
A gust of wind –the electric chair purred
in the background and the ciphers
of a Hebraic equation flickered on– broke the ice.
He turned his blank stare to high heaven.
The monitor and the collar stamped with a seal.
He opened his bitter mouth and dribbled in my sleeve
while biting his tongue. Then we drew back the veil.
Crossing the ford with the beloved puppet
like a gray Saint Christopher in a cosmic chapel
we reached the very spring of the hole perforated
in the fabric of time. We reached the hallowed chair.
The nurse told me: His laughter is the gift
of a crippled demiurge, of a God made of tinsel.
We drank Coca-Cola and tasted tortillas
while the firmament wept, deciphered.
I had a disturbing encounter with Stephen Hawking on my first day at the Nobel symposium, when all the participants of the meeting were herded into the woods for a cocktail party. We were within sight of the tables bearing food and drink when Hawking’s wheelchair, which was being pushed by one of his nurses, jammed in a rut in the path. The nurse asked if I would mind carrying Hawking the rest of the way to the party. Hawking, when I scooped him up, was disconcertingly light and stiff, like a bundle of sticks. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye and found him already eyeing me suspiciously. Abruptly, his face twisted into an agonized grimace; his body shuddered violently, and he emitted a gargling noise. My first thought was: A man is dying in my arms! How horrible! My second thought was: Stephen Hawking is dying in my arms! What a story! That thought was surrendering in turn to shame at the depths of my opportunism when the nurse, who had noticed Hawking’s distress, and mine, hustled up to us. “Don’t worry,” she said, gathering Hawking gently into her arms. “This happens to him all the time. He’ll be all right.”