The Commissioned PBK Poem
Since 2002 the Ohio Wesleyan Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa has commissioned a poem to include as part of its initiation ceremony, a way to celebrate the occasion and honor new members. Other chapters, such as the Harvard chapter, have long had a tradition of commissioning a poem for their initiation, and the Ohio Wesleyan chapter has followed suit. When commissioning the poem, the chapter explains the nature of the honor and of the occasion. Most of the poets already are familiar with PBK, of course, and in response they write a work that in some way challenges the initiates and the audience to ponder the nature of the liberal arts, liberal learning, and academic achievement—the values of Phi Beta Kappa. As the initiation ritual puts it, Phi Beta Kappa celebrates the “spirit of learning.” That spirit requires the virtue of patience, which manifests itself as a “spirit of reverence . . . for the integrity of the human mind and its infinite capacities.”
2015: Jessica Greenbaum, “Then, the Parade of Flowers”
Who loves a March landscape
the snow—so domineering this winter—
now used suds from a broken machine, leaking
from the bottom of the side fence
eking only partially across the yard
the melt-drenched earth asserting itself
in whole patches, little beaches where the tide ebbs
the half dark earth / half snow landscape
something we recognize
from our own graceless moments of change
and doubt, whatever blanket truth we believed
with all our hearts one season of our lives—
how revelation, as we understood it
improved, like snow does, upon the day’s design
of pine boughs and picnic table
how it helped us see, again
and differently altogether, how it stayed true
for one season and how it defined a season
by remaining true—
all until, from a slightly different angle
the sun considered the earth
and turned it, like the text.
Commissioned by the Eta Chapter of Ohio, Phi Beta Kappa, 2015
Reviews of Jessica Greenbaum
“Jessica Greenbaum’s first book, Inventing Difficulty (Silverfish Review Press, 1998), won the Gerald Cable Prize. Her second book, The Two Yvonnes (2012), was chosen by Paul Muldoon for Princeton’s Series of Contemporary Poets. She is the poetry editor for upstreet and lives in Brooklyn. She received a 2014 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.” (Poetry Foundation web site)
“Greenbaum's work, written in the everyday patois of urban Americans, has been characterized as edgy and idiosyncratic, localized and wry, and she’s earned comparisons to Whitman and Hart Crane for her lyrical familiarity with the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and environs. . . . Greenbaum's storyteller is not just interesting, but interested, and invested, in the world.” (Diego Báez, Booklist)
2014: Albert Goldbarth, “The Evolution of Hope”
There are all of those canonical “poetic” occasions,
the lark, the rainbow, the sprocket-sized hummingbird
shimmering itself half into another dimension
—airborne things. Difficult, to feel their inspiration
here at the carnival: the press of needy, jostled flesh
and the fryer grease and the rides the size
of factories built to process cheesy thrills
. . . all, weighting the night down
into gravity’s nonstop grip. This line
of ticket-holders . . . here, he’s the one
who beat his wife (“or really,” he keeps saying, as if
he’s only a tool, “Jack Daniels did”), and
here’s the woman who left her baby alone last week
to party with Two-Tone and Flyboy
out by the Ramrod Inn, and here’s the one
who doesn’t even know he owns a company
that also owns a company that owns
the smaller companies in another country that keep
the people there living on rice and roots,
which is several gravities too many for our species
to endure . . . still, hope evolved in us
to thrive in especially this
forbidding landscape, and its images
refuse to disappear. For example,
the Tilt-a-Whirl, that gaudy eyesore tonnage
In its ups-a-daisy roll. It starts out slow enough,
a massive thing of metal and its massive human cargo,
but if you stare at it, if you won’t look away,
eventually it goes fast enough
to blur, to be a weightless floating wonder
the way the hummingbird is.
Commissioned by the Eta Chapter of Ohio, Phi Beta Kappa, 2014
About Albert Goldbarth
Albert Goldbarth was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1948. He received his BA from the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle campus, in 1969 and his MFA from the University of Iowa in 1971. He taught at the Elgin Community College in Chicago until 1972 and as a coordinator for the Traveling Writers Workshop for public schools in the Chicago area.
In 1974, while at the University of Utah while working toward his PhD in creative writing, Goldbarth received the Poetry Northwest Theodore Roethke Prize, published a chapbook, Under Cover, and had completed two full-length poetry collections, Coprolites and Opticks (published in 1974). He left Utah early to teach at Cornell and then Syracuse Universities before moving to the University of Texas, Austin, where he taught from 1977 to 1987.
Since then, he has published more than twenty-five collections of poetry, including To Be Read in 500 Years: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2009); The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems 1972-2007 (2007); Saving Lives (2001) and Heaven and Earth: A Cosmology (1991), both of which won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry (Goldbarth is the only poet to have received the award twice); Popular Culture (1990), which received the Ohio State University Press / The Journal Award; and Jan. 31 (1974), which was nominated in 1975 for the National Book Award.
Goldbarth told The Missouri Review, “a lot of my poems do try to serve as memorials, as segments of frozen time that save people or cultural moments that have otherwise passed away or are in danger of passing away.”
He has also written several collections of essays, including Many Circles (Graywolf Press, 2001), winner of the PEN West Creative Nonfiction Award, A Sympathy of Souls (1990) and Great Topics of the World (1994), and a novel, Pieces of Payne (Graywolf Press, 2001).
About his work, the critic Helen Vendler has said, “Half of Goldbarth’s imagination . . . is what is usually called religious. Goldbarth’s tenderness toward the mystical does not, however, vitiate his enormous curiosity, or the momentum of his zest, or his sympathy of souls with the historical personages he resuscitates. . . . His rhetoric is eager to mirror the number of things the world is full of, the unexpected fulfillments it holds in its arms.”
He is Adele Davis Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Wichita State University, where he has taught since 1987. He gave a poetry reading and visited classes at Ohio Wesleyan in October 2013.
2013: Traci Brimhall, “Good Luck with the Double Cross, or Advice to Myself at 22”
Your first love will not be your last. The heart recovers.
The relief, bitter. The pain a consolation prize for the forever
you did not win from the mouth of the one you wanted.
The hitchhiker you pick up on that overcast road in the Yukon
is sadder than you are and his road is longer. Stop hoping
to see a grizzly bear. They’re terrifying and might pull you
from your tent for the blueberry stains on your shirt. It’s true—
the longer you study literature, the harder it is to enjoy some
books, but your capacity for awe is greater. Some pleasures
never fade—a good kiss, sleeping in, moonlight on water.
Accept your good luck and try to feel worthy of it. Try as you
might, echolocation and telegraphs will not help you find the one
who got away, though Google will, but not until it’s too late.
Sing when you’re lost. It won’t help you find your way, but it will
prove to your fear that you’re still alive. There’s no double-cross
like a friend’s and no love like a pet’s, but neither will be
by your hospital bed at 3AM. When your body teaches you
you’re no longer young, accept the Vicodin and lost afternoons.
When you reach thirty, you’ll realize you’ve already forgotten
what you never forgave. You’ll start to wonder, start to wander,
look for an answer in your lover’s mouth, look on mountain tops,
look in equatorial temples before you find it, waiting, in a book.
Commissioned by the Eta Chapter of Ohio, Phi Beta Kappa, 2013
About Traci Brimhall
Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Award.
Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, New England Review, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, and FIELD. Her work has also been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Best of the Net, PBS Newshour, and Best American Poetry 2013. Her poetry comic collaborations with Eryn Cruft can be found in Guernica, Ninth Letter, TheThe Poetry Comics, and Nashville Review. She and the poet Brynn Saito are co-authors of a collaborative chapbook, Bright Power, Dark Peace (Diode Editions, 2013).
She’s received a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the 2012 Summer Poet in Residence at the University of Mississippi, and the 2008-2009 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. Other awards for her work include scholarships and fellowships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, The Writer’s Center of Bethesda, Vermont Studio Center, the Disquiet International Literary Program, and the Arctic Circle Residency.
She holds degrees from Florida State University (BA) and Sarah Lawrence College (MFA). Currently, she teaches creative writing at Western Michigan University where she is a doctoral candidate and a King/Chávez/Parks Fellow. She also serves as Editor in Chief for Third Coast.
(From Traci Brimhall’s web site)
2012: Yehoshua November, “To Be a Student”
To be a student means to put on a sweater in the winter and run
to the lecture hall, to force yourself to stare
at the ancient professor’s face spouting theorems
instead of the picture of your girlfriend who is studying
in another state. In the picture, she stands
in front of a lake. Perhaps one day she will be your wife,
and you will wonder if it’s possible you were ever a student.
How many times you have risen, exhausted, from your chair
under the library’s fluorescent light, just before midnight,
and walked toward the water fountain,
past the other serious students who love knowledge
and success. And the next day’s exam
was always easier than you had imagined,
unless it was harder.
To be a student is to wait for the semester’s end
and to wait for the semester’s open.
And then one day, just like that, you finish school.
You consider how much you have forgotten—
who fired the shot that began one nation’s history and ended another’s,
how to conjugate the rare verb tenses spoken in a country
no one has ever visited, the face of the student
you sat next to the first class, the first fall.
How beautiful it is to know you have worked so hard.
How strange it is to wake up, no longer a student,
and realize you know nothing about the world.
How beautiful it is to rise early,
humble and ready to learn.
Commissioned by the Eta Chapter of Ohio, Phi Beta Kappa, 2012
About Yehoshua November
Yehoshua November’s debut book, God's Optimism, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Books Prize (2010). His poems have appeared in a number of distinguished journals, including The Sun, Prairie Schooner, Margie, and The Forward, and the collection received very strong reviews. His poetry has been anthologized, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and selected as the winner of Prairie Schooner’s Bernice Slote Award. He teaches writing at Rutgers University and Touro College. In February 2012 he gave a poetry reading at Ohio Wesleyan University.
2011: Denise Duhamel, “Ode to the Maraschino Cherry”
I had my first in a Shirley Temple at my uncle’s bar.
He plucked one from a heap near the other garnishes—the tart lemon
and lime slices, the briny olives. I sipped the fizzy drink, trying
to make it last, but was more interested in the cherry,
a plump preserved potbelly. The cherry was violent
and seductive—the texture of a bloody nose, the stickiness of lipstick,
what went on at the bar at night when I wasn’t there. I snuck a few more
from the bowl near the cash register. Piled on top of one another,
the cherries looked like drupelets, as though together they made a huge berry.
After my first, I kept on the lookout for Maraschinos—one impaled on a straw
of a homemade Cherry Coke. Another settled into the whipped cream
of a chocolate sundae or stuck like a scarlet freckle in a slice of ham.
I would crumble apart a piece of otherwise boring fruitcake
hoping to find even a lopsided Maraschino sliver.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that something so delicious
wasn’t good for me, that I wasn’t even getting the benefit of the fruit
once the sulfur dioxide and food coloring got through with it.
The cherries were bleached first, my mother told me—and I imagined Clorox
bottles and boxes of Clairol. Red dye numbers 1 and 4 were actually banned
for a time before the FDA let them sneak back into Maraschino cherries,
which were considered mainly decorative and not really a foodstuff at all.
An apple may be nutrition and knowledge, but to be tempted
by a Maraschino is to be tempted by excess and glitz.
Knowledge that the neon bar sign will sputter and fade by morning.
Knowledge that marriage will squeeze your aunt’s whole face closed.
Knowledge that your uncle will die bankrupt, cirrhosis of the liver.
Knowledge that the cherries you loved bobbed for a month
in calcium chloride until devoid of color
then were soaked for a week in artificial flavor. Knowledge, yes,
and reaching for the embalmed fruit nonetheless.
Commissioned by the Eta Chapter of Ohio, Phi Beta Kappa, 2011
About Denise Duhamel
Denise Duhamel was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island in 1961. She received a BFA degree from Emerson College and a MFA degree from Sarah Lawrence College. She is the author of numerous books and chapbooks of poetry, including: Ka-Ching! (University of Pittsburgh, 2009), Two and Two (2005), and Mille et un sentiments (Firewheel Editions, 2005).
Her other books currently in print are Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (University of Pittsburgh, 2001), The Star-Spangled Banner, winner of the Crab Orchard Poetry Prize (1999); Kinky (1997); Girl Soldier (1996); and How the Sky Fell (1996). Duhamel has also collaborated with Maureen Seaton on three volumes: Little Novels (Pearl Editions, 2002), Oyl (2000), and Exquisite Politics (Tia Chucha Press, 1997).
In response to Duhamel's collection Smile!, Edward Field says, "More than any other poet I know, Denise Duhamel, for all the witty, polished surface of her poems, communicates the ache of human existence." A winner of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, she has been anthologized widely, including four volumes of The Best American Poetry (2000, 1998, 1994, and 1993). Duhamel teaches creative writing and literature at Florida International University and lives in Hollywood, Florida. (Poets.org)
Ms. Duhamel has offered poetry readings at Ohio Wesleyan in the fall of 2010 and also in academic year 2009-10.
2010: David Yezzi, “Competing Music”
Our friend is halfway through
a Beethoven sonata
on the first springlike day
of the year. Outside, my daughter,
below an open window,
bounces a playground ball
to a red-haired boy her age.
At the first ping of rubber
on concrete, a guest at our party
jerks his head. And I wince
because I feel for him.
We’d all been so transported.)
A shame to have the ferocity
and amabilità broken briefly.
But perhaps it’s something said
for Beethoven, deaf and sick,
that his strong music can
admit her childish shocks,
mingle with her sounds and make them
even more alive
and irrepressibly dear.
My daughter doesn’t know
what harmonies we all heard
or how they mixed with hers,
as she played out
her game and the last notes
sailed off like sprinkler-mist
in the long, dry afternoon.
We applauded the union between
the piano’s tree-leaning ladders
earthward, narrowing skyward—
and, through dark doors
left open to catch the sun,
the peals of her high laughter.
Commissioned by the Ohio Eta Chaper of Phi Beta Kappa Poem, Ohio Wesleyan University on May 8, 2010
About David Yezzi
David Yezzi’s poetry collections include Azores (2008) and The Hidden Motel (2003), and his criticism and poetry have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Best American Poetry. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Yezzi is Executive Editor of The New Criterion. He has also edited The Swallow Anthology of New American Poetry (2009). His libretto for a chamber opera by composer David Conte, Firebird Motel, premiered in 2003 and was released on CD by Arsis (2007). Poet-critic Adam Kirsch, who selected Azores as one of Slate’s Best Books of 2008, noted that Yezzi’s poetry “displays a civilized mastery reminiscent of Philip Larkin and Donald Justice, which no poet of his generation can match.” David Yezzi is a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University and received his MFA from Columbia University.
(Biography from The Poetry Foundation web site)
2009: Okla Elliott, “The Trials to Come”
After four years (maybe five) of reading
authors both dead and alive, of bleeding
your youthful blood, straining your eyes, you’re done
at last, but done is a disguise for one
more task you must begin. Time flies, they say,
and I guess the cliché applies doubly today
as we wish you well in the trials to come —
and they will — in size measured by the ton.
But I hope — no, I know — the styles of thought
and rhetoric, the miles of words we’ve taught
you will serve as wise guide through and anodyne
to injuries to come. But realize I’m
not suggesting life is comprised of knocks
alone. We’ve seen the fall and rise of stocks
a dozen times in recent months, and that’s
what, largely, you might surmise one gets …
ups and downs and ups, cries and smiles, repeat.
But don’t treat topsy-turvy rides as defeat.
Now you’re prepared for each surprise you will meet.
Commissioned by the Eta Chapter of Ohio, Phi Beta Kappa, 2009
About Okla Elliott
Okla Elliott is a visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Ohio Wesleyan University. His non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations appear in A Public Space, Indiana Review, International Poetry Review, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Letters, North Dakota Quarterly, and the Sewanee Theological Review, among others. He is the author of The Mutable Wheel and Lucid Bodies and Other Poems and is co-editor, with Kyle Minor, of The Other Chekhov.
2008: David Caplan, “Beit Midrash”
One room to learn and pray in,
both forms of argument. A sink in the hall,
a wall busy with hats, boys quote sages,
claim and counterclaim sung like riddles.
Impossible to hear a single voice, a conclusion
raised from the tiny print.
A pond a mile from the Atlantic,
last year’s neighbors raced miniature yachts,
the cow lily a local watercolorist sketched
barely disturbed. Behind us,
a mudflat shivered into the bay
as if it remembered the island,
remembered what it would not share.
Ana, listen to the noise
the boys make, three languages
forked in one thought: The timid
cannot learn and the impatient cannot teach.
Tidewater hurrying across sand,
a catamaran heeled to keep
from toppling, one pontoon
windward in the air, the other
balanced in its reflection.
About David Caplan
Professor David Caplan (English Department, Ohio Wesleyan University) specializes in twentieth- and twentieth-first century American literature. His scholarly interests include verse form and contemporary poetry. He has published Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form (Oxford University Press 2004; paperback 2006) and Poetic Form: An Introduction (Longman, 2006). He serves as a contributing editor to the Virginia Quarterly Review and an affiliated researcher (Chercheur Affili’) at the Centre Interdisciplinaire de Po’tique Appliqu’e at the University of Li’ge where he was a Fulbright lecturer. His current projects include Rhyme’s Challenge (under contract to Oxford University Press) and In the World He Created According to His Will (poems) (forthcoming, the University of Georgia Press / VQR Poetry Series). In 2008-09 he will be a Poetics Fellow at Emory University’s Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry.
2007: C. Dale Young, “Recitativo”
As an arrow flies through the air, some
will say it swims because it bends and flexes
from side to side, like a fish does, like a fish swims.
But is that true? True, but not exact.
It isn’t enough to say the arrow swims.
It isn’t enough to say the arrow quivers.
Remember the spine of the arrow is wood.
It cannot be aluminum because such things
were not yet known in that world — the spine
limber enough to avoid the drawn bow’s shattering.
Know that the arrow does not serve the bow.
Know that the bow does not serve the arrow.
Not powder blue, but powdery and blue.
Not bound to a tree, but hands strung up to a tree.
Distinctions like these are, in fact, important
when the time comes for you to recount the story.
It isn’t enough to say the arrows flew.
It isn’t enough to say the arrows pierced.
The Turkey doesn’t fly nor does it swim.
But its feathers are essential for the arrow
to meet its target. The air is a swarm of arrows
and, for less than a minute, it could be called beautiful.
Know that the arrow, now arrows, will strike the flesh.
Know that the arrows, now arrow, will meet the target.
This is an old story, powdery lens of time having made
the light of it softer, almost as sweet as this music.
You must tell it. You will tell it. The man’s head refuses
to slump. It cocks to one side, the eyes refusing to shut.
It isn’t enough to say they killed the man.
It is never enough to say he became a Saint.
Commissioned for the Phi Beta Kappa Initiation Ceremony, 2007, Eta of Ohio, Ohio Wesleyan University
2006: Harvey L. Hix, “The Idea of a University”
Here is what I learned in school:
one can calculate the space
here to the unreachable;
no good is pure but good will;
ηως ροδοδάκτυλος. 1
I learned, but not always well.
Carbon is symmetrical;
ignōtum per ignōtius; 2
light speed is unreachable.
Ex nihilō fit nihil 3;
homō hominī lupus; 4
that is what I learned in school.
x, where 1 over x equals
x over 1 plus x: 5
abstract is empirical.
Space is four-dimensional.
Εν αρχη ην ο λόγος. 6
School taught me distrust of school
and gave the unreachable.
- “Rosy-fingered Dawn,” Homer, passim. [NOTE: Diacritical marks are omitted because of limitations with fonts.]
- “The unknown (explained) by means of the more unknown: an annoyingly obscure explanation.”
- “Nothing comes of nothing.” Lucretius.
- “Man is a wolf to men.” Plautus.
- The equation expresses a proportionality of line segments, which the Greeks found pleasing: take a segment of total length 1 + x and break it into pieces of lengths 1 and x. Then the ratio of the two pieces is the same as the ratio of the second to the total length. This is sometimes called Mean and Extreme Ratio in Euclidean geometry.
Now, this equation is equivalent to quadratic equation: start with 1/x = x/(1 + x) and cross multiply to obtain x2 = x + 1, which by the quadratic formula has solutions [1 +/- squareroot(5)] / 2. The positive solution [1 + squareroot(5)] / 2 is a famous number in mathematics. It is the golden ratio, sometimes denoted phi. It occurs in all kinds of applications and is related to the Fibonacci sequence. The Greeks, for instance, thought that the most esthetic rectangle was one in which the side ratio is phi to 1. There is a recent popular book about it. So the equation that the poet names has a good pedigree. (Jeff Nunemacher)
- John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word.”
About Harvey Hix
Harvey L. Hix teaches in and directs the creative writing MFA at the University of Wyoming. From 2002 to 2005 he was Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He received a B.A. (1982) from Belmont University, and an M.A. (1985) and Ph.D. (1987) in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin. His recent books include his fourth poetry collection, Shadows of Houses, a collection of essays on poetry entitled As Easy As Lying, and an anthology, Wild and Whirling Words.
Hix also has written about postmodern theory and translated City of Ash, a collection of poems by Lithuanian poet, Eugenijus Ali’anka, who was born in Barnaula, Siberia, to parents exiled during the Stalinist purges. Hix’s poetry has been described as “interweav[ing] the language of science, philosophy, and scripture into a voice singular in its complexity and urgency.” His essays “delve into the workings of the poetic mind and offer incisive assessments of contemporary American poets and poetics.”
2005: Mark Doty, “In the Airport Marshes”
A kind of heaven,
this clamor, a lulliloo: “to shout joyously,
to welcome with cries, from a cry
of joy among some African peoples”:
Webster’s New International,
1934, a foot-thick volume deftly marbled
as this patch of marsh.
Today I require the term and there it is …
these definitions wait to be lived,
actual as these frogs, who chorus
as if there’s no tomorrow, or else
they’ve all the time in the world.
We ruin the rain, they go right on
this year. Hard to imagine
the eagerness of a body which pours itself
into this — bodies you have
to take on faith, since all they seem
to be is chiming Morse
belling out long-short
over the patched tarmac
of the runway. I have never
till now needed the word lulliloo.
How do you reckon
your little music?
About Mark Doty
Mark Doty was born in 1953. He recently has published School of the Arts: Poems (2005). His other books of poems include Source (HarperCollins, 2002); Sweet Machine (1998); Atlantis (1995), which received the Ambassador Book Award, the Bingham Poetry Prize, and a Lambda Literary Award; My Alexandria (1993), chosen by Philip Levine for the National Poetry Series, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and Britain's T. S. Eliot Prize, and was also a National Book Award finalist; Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991); and Turtle, Swan (1987). He has also published Heaven's Coast: A Memoir (1996), which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, and Firebird (HarperCollins, 1999), an autobiography. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ingram Merrill, Rockefeller, and Whiting foundations, and from the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Houston, Texas, where he teaches at the University of Houston.
(Source: Biography from the American Academy of Poets Web Site)
2004: Rafael Campo, “Toward a Theory of Memory”
You can never go back. Roaring past stands
of exhaust-stunted pines, we carry too much
with us, to where so many years ago
we met in each the other …
already half our lives gone by … beginning then
what has since become this long accumulation,
this effort to make knowable a history,
as if the duffle bag,
the battered journal, the sunglasses once lost
and then after a days-long search regained,
the unconsciously memorized sequence
of highway exits,
the Doberman made almost small by napping
in a knot on the back seat, as if each
were purposefully adding up
to something certain.
And there it is, exactly as we left it,
although perhaps the drive from the toll booths
to the stately red brick buildings, home
to other students now,
seems shorter, or at least less promising,
less an opening to the universe.
Here is where we learned how time changes us,
first inklings of truth’s
relentless and impossible defining,
the parsec in freshman astronomy
at once exact and stretching out a distance
I could not imagine,
as far as I could travel reading Coleridge
and Dickinson beneath the quad’s great oaks,
a place both recognizable and not.
I suppose that’s why
we want so much to return, wondering
if still that spot exists, and knowing it
cannot. You point out new construction,
a student center
sprawling out upon what was a favorite expanse
of lawn, traversed so many times each spring,
the earth’s warm breath upon our pumping legs,
rushing to get there,
down the hill, past the ugly “social dorms”
beyond which railroad tracks divided
the campus from what might best be called a meadow
dotted with birches,
some old enough to have unraveling bark,
dissolution that seemed mysterious
beneath such young green leaves that gave us shade.
We park the SUV
and from the opened back hatch out bounds Ruby;
you pull the comforter from the duffle bag,
while I collect the cooler (peanut butter
on whole wheat, carrot sticks,
two cold, clear bottles of Poland Spring) and
the books we’re working on, like coursework we assign ourselves, habit
of our education here. I remember when
last week you flushed me out of bed to see
the first open blossom on the hyacinths
you forced, so proud of your discovery
that something new could be
coaxed up from winter’s usual nothingness,
its expected, dependable devolution,
and how in that tiny pink cup it seemed
the world might be contained,
that in it I could descend deeper and deeper
until I was able again to trust anything,
to pretend that one can yet revert to innocence.
I feel a slight pain now
as we come upon the tall, familiar grass,
insects set skittering by our footsteps
then alighting who knows where but in
a line I'll scribble down
possessing nothing of them except dust,
a rusting oil drum at one far corner red-brown
as cinnamon, the birches, perhaps more stout,
bent forward as if they’d
prepared their bower specially for us. You spread
the comforter, leave two decades … same half for me
to lay beside you. Birds sing their songs of need, communicating
hunger, alarm, sexual deeds; it is all
still here, if not exactly as it once was, then
the way we might want it, having been there
once and come, gladly, again.
About Rafael Campo
Rafael Campo was born in Dover, New Jersey, in 1964. He is the author of several books of poetry, including The Healing Art: A Doctor's Black Bag of Poetry (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003); Diva (1999), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; What the Body Told (1996), winner of a Lambda Literary Award; and The Other Man Was Me: A Voyage to the New World (1994), winner of the National Poetry Series 1993 Open Competition. The Poetry of Healing: A Doctor’s Education in Empathy, Identity, and Poetry (W. W. Norton, 1996), his collection of prose, also received a Lambda Literary Award for Memoir. He is a PEN Center West Literary Award finalist and a recipient of the National Hispanic Academy of Arts and Sciences Annual Achievement Award, and recently received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Echoing Green Foundation. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in many publications, including The Best American Poetry 1995, DoubleTake, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, Parnassus, Ploughshares, and the Washington Post Book World. He is a practicing physician at Harvard Medical School and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
(Source: The Academy of American Poets)
Dr. Campo read his poetry and visited classes at Ohio Wesleyan in February 2002.
2003: Dick Davis, “Phi Beta Kappa Poem, 2003”
How should a Brit presume to speak
For this Ohioan and Greek
Not even a lapsed Methodist,
I thought at first I should resist
But then more sensibly reflected
That kindness should not be rejected;
Might “outwardly” be what we are,
But none of us stray very far
From the same sins;
Which means we find it hard to shout
“This yard belongs to us … keep out!”
And great John Wesley
Can seem to have no more to teach us
Than verbally more challenged preachers
Like Elvis Presley.
And so perhaps it doesn’t matter
If I don’t have the in-house patter …
If you don’t see,
Before you now, strict relevance
Of background faith, or provenance;
Or a Greek key.
But being P-C ecumenical
Gives us no license to be cynical:
Why are we here
If not to celebrate Distinction?
To save it from morose extinction
And raise a cheer
In doing so? The problem then
Is how to be a citizen
But stubbornly intelligent;
For whom the mind is something meant
To be Socratic
But also (this is most frustrating)
It’s no surprise
If intellectuals are defensive …
Since cleverness can be offensive,
And when they’re wise
It has to be in such a way
That all of Demos wants to say
“I feel that too”.
The heavenly funambulist
Who brings this off does not exist.
What, then, to do?
Of course, like you, I’ve no idea.
A versifier’s not a seer
Despite the claims
Of Shelley and his New Age cronies …
Please, please, ignore all vatic phonies …
Perhaps though I can be allowed
To welcome you into the crowd
Of those who care
To worry at such problems — who
Ask “How to live and what to do?”
And don’t despair.
Although they know most answers seem
Like Prospero’s insubstantial dream,
Some are still solid:
Honor the honest intellect,
Show mouthy cant the door, reject
What’s smugly stolid;
See that your home’s a civil place
Where love of beauty’s no disgrace:
You could do worse.
And, friends, among the other arts
You let into your learn’d hearts
Don’t forget verse.
About Dick Davis
Dick Davis is currently Professor of Persian at Ohio State University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
He was born to English and Italian parents in 1945 and educated at King's College, Cambridge (B.A. and M.A. in English Literature). In 1970 while pursuing a career in poetry and literature and teaching in Greece he visited a friend in Iran. While there, he fell ill and was nursed to health by a Persian woman, whom he eventually married. Davis fell in love with the country as well, and stayed for eight years, learning Persian and teaching at the University of Tehran. After the revolution in 1979 the Davis family returned to England where he pursued his love of the Persian language, earning his Ph.D. in Medieval Persian Literature from the University of Manchester.
Prof. Davis has won numerous awards, including the Arts Council of Great Britain Writers’ Award (1979), the Heinemann Award for “a work of outstanding literary merit” (1981), the Award of The British Institute of Persian Studies (1981), the Persian Heritage Foundation Award for 1989, the Ingram Merrill Prize for “excellence in poetry” (1993), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1999-2000), and several prizes for his translations from the Persian.
Since receiving his Ph.D., he has emerged as the foremost translator of Persian. His translations from Persian include The Lion and the Throne: Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi (1997), My Uncle Napoleon (1996), The Legend of Seyavash (1992), and with Afkham Darbandi, The Conference of the Birds (1984). He has also written a groundbreaking interpretation of the Shahnameh, Epic and Sedition: The Case of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (1998).
Prof. Davis has published numerous volumes of his own poetry to critical acclaim, including: Belonging (2002), Touchwood (1996), A New Kind of Love (1991), Devices and Desires (1989), and The Covenant (1984).
2002: Marilyn Nelson, “Faster Than Light”
Because my son needed to use my car,
I had to take a taxi to the train.
Although New London is an hour away,
it was the best solution we could find.
After ten miles or so of idle chat
in which my occupation was confessed,
the driver said he was a physicist…
As a hobby, he said: driving was his trade.
Still struggling to connect my seat-belt clasp,
I asked his opinion of an article
I’d skimmed last weekend in the New York Times,
about a man who researches time-travel.
He made that pffft Parisian cabbies make
in early August, when Americans
try to parlez avec them at rush hour.
He gave me a long over-the-shoulder glare,
squeezed the steering wheel, and hit the gas.
He said, He’s wrong. The one thing that would work
is to fly faster than the speed of light,
through a worm hole. The gravitational field
is full of holes: You only have to find
one, and be pulled by metagravitational force.
For energy you could use compressed sound.
( … or words to that effect. My memory
isn’t what it was ten minutes ago.)
He drove with ten white knuckles on the wheel,
his pinched blue right eye looking back at me,
Faster than light travel, that’s the secret.
The government’s been onto this for years.
This one’s almost used up; it’s time to move.
We won’t take people who don’t measure up,
Let them inherit the earth: We’ll take the skies.
(I still couldn’t figure out the seat-belt catch.)
The poor and ignorant population grows
so quickly … You’d deny their right to life?
There’s a fuckin’ holocaust of the unborn!
Some races and cultures just lack the gift
of scientific knowledge. It’s the dross
of their stupidity which weighs us down
and holds us back. Faster than light travel!
Faster than light travel! The only way!
We hurtled down the turnpike, passing trucks
Faster than light! and cars full of people
Faster than light travel, that’s the ticket!
Finally, we pulled up at the train station.
(I’d given up on fastening my seat-belt —
stupid contraption — trusting to
the universe to grant me more good luck.)
I scrambled out. We wished each other well.
(My tip was generous, if I do say so myself.)
Faster than light, he yelled, late for his next
pick-up, zooming off, talking to his phone.
(My cup brimmed over with Psalm Twenty-Three.
Buoyancy’s sometimes stronger than gravity.)
I wheeled my luggage down the crowded train,
then found a seat and opened my magazine.
Some influence is affecting a space probe,
I read, which baffles scientists. It will
rewrite the laws of physics and astronomy,
when scientists understand and name that force.
The plan was for Pioneer 10 to arrive
several million years from now, at some far place.
In case of alien contact, it carries a plaque
of a man and a woman, and a celestial map
showing Earth with a spear held to her head.
Thirty years since Pioneer’s launch, it’s out past Pluto,
the farthest planet orbiting our sun,
in empty space 7 billion miles from Earth.
The article said current theories can’t explain
what’s causing the decrease in Pioneer’s speed.
It’s almost imperceptible, a mere
6 mph per century: Pioneer 10
is being pulled back to the sun. I closed my eyes.
… Several million years from now. As if
a species on the brink of extinguishing itself
said to a future species, Remember me.
Remember who perfected genocide?
Will Science ever discover humility?
Why stop there? Why don’t you attack Knowledge,
while you’re at it? And how about Progress?
Ain’t that a bit ambitious, Miss William Blake?
What was that voice? Listen, Marilyn, listen:
as saints once listened (and, of course, the mad).
I looked around: the other passengers
were busy with laptops, breakfasts, books.
And where does it get off, accusing me? Ambition?
Why, I’ve surpassed every fantasy I had.
Would I presume to bad-mouth our attempt
to cheat death? My poems: a handful of dust
trying to get back to supernova.
Like every longing, everything alive.
Ambition wants the immortality
of a member’s-only country club Valhalla,
an eternal summit-meeting of great names.
Millions of light-years into the future,
that immortality ambition breeds
with serendipity: what will it mean?
Our poetry, our books, our language: dust
and words never again to be spoken.
I wonder what will last millions of years:
a stone? A nuclear waste storage site?
Will homo sapiens evolve, or die?
Will wiser thinking beings live on Earth?
We’re dying faster than the speed of light,
our fame forgettable. Will our good deeds
vanish like molecules of exhaled breath,
to be recycled by the universe?
Girl, get on back to the raft. When you try to think,
the breeze between your ears nearly blows me away.
The Muse again. So much for my magazine.
As if you ain’t been drifting all this time.
you’d know that what lasts is the hush of space:
the hiss of orbit, and the hum of stars.
If we could launch a space probe, I wondered,
would it take my last name engraved in gold?
My puny thoughts? My hopes for the future?
If I had to remain anonymous,
would I publish? Would I write poems at all?
(During the count-down of Anonymous,
poets scratch their initials on the hull.)
Well, Muse of my disposable poetry,
at least I’m not cluttering up a land-fill.
People whose aim is immortality,
poets who are ambitious: Is it wrong
to want life after their death for their songs?
Leave immortality to cancer cells:
They don’t know when to stop. Just when they reach
the point of no return, the body dies,
and the cancer is returned to genesis.
Genes are programmed to reproduce and die.
Poetry, to be stuck on a synapse,
lucky to be a line remembered wrong.
Your work, projected into the future,
is pulled back to earth by dark energy,
that glue which binds the cosmos together . . .
From Stamford on, I no longer traveled alone;
my seat mates, a businessman and his cell-phone.
Commissioned by Eta of Ohio, The Ohio Wesleyan University Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, May 2002