A Poem for Commencement

Norman Rockwell, "Boy Graduate"

Norman Rockwell, “Boy Graduate”

The following Steve Kowit poem, published in the March 2013 issue of Sun Magazine, has been been circulating amongst our faculty, and as our Commencement is tomorrow, I thought I’d share it. I’m not as jaded as the speaker in the poem—indeed, Commencement is the high point of the year for me—but I still end where he ends.

The following Steve Kowit poem, published in the March 2013 issue of Sun Magazine thesunmagazine.org/,  has been been circulating amongst our faculty, and as our Commencement is tomorrow, I thought I’d share it. I’m not as jaded as the speaker in the poem—indeed, Commencement is the high point of the year for me—but I still end where he ends.

Five Skunks

By Steve Kowit

Graduation was awful. When I handed Johlie her diploma,
that idiotic, oversized black mortarboard slid down my forehead
& covered my eyes & out in the stands everyone started to laugh
& if that wasn’t mortifying enough, at the reception a colleague,
ladling himself another cupful of punch, mentioned in passing
that final-grade rosters were due the next morning at ten.
I was seething: it meant two hours of work & it was Friday evening,
& no way in hell was I coming back Saturday morning at eight,
which is why, when that damn graduation was done & the last
cars had driven out of the lot, I made my way back through the dark
to my office, disgruntled & sullen–& that’s when I saw them:
two huge skunks in the doorway, sipping the water I leave out
for the stray cats who roam the campus by day, & just
to their left their three diminutive tykes nibbling away at the bowl
of kibble: a family of five furtive skunks, surviving the way
the despised & ill-starred often do, by desperation & stealth,
hiding by day to slink out & scavenge at night.
I stood in the shadows grinning,
taking them in—wide assed & bandylegged, snouts to the bowls–
till at last, having slurped & eaten their fill, that whole miraculous,
heartbreaking crew waddled contentedly off on their stubby little legs,
single file, like school kids, their glistening rumps high in the air
like lowriders, the stripes down their backs thick & white,
magnificent tails sweeping the grass in their wake.
I watched till they were lost in the dark & even then I kept watching,
cheering them on. I could hardly bear seeing them go.
Like the students I teach year after year, who clutch their diplomas
& vanish, their fates were out of my hands. Which is when
it came to me that in my cantankerous mood I’d missed
the whole celebration: that solemn procession, the gowns,
the ceremonial feast, & those immigrant families whooping it up
in the stands when Yasmin & Gai Lin & Juan Carlos stepped
to the stage had, in truth, been sweet all around me.
& that understood, I see myself yet again for that flummoxed buffoon
in the old Zen tale who, when the Master points to the rising moon
of awakened mind, stares instead stupidly at the Roshi’s finger.
Office key in my hand, I take a deep breath & look up
& notice at last those unbelievable millions of stars,
& low in the east an exquisite, sumptuous moon, three-quarters full.

The last image reminds me of a passage in the Cormac McCarthy novel All the Pretty Horses which I’ve sometimes associated with graduation. Two young cowboys are riding off on an adventure—with Milton one could say “the world lay all before them”—and the excitement they feel is like the wonder experienced by Kowit’s speaker:

They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.

So for those of you attending graduations, let the poem remind you (in case you need reminding) that what we are celebrating is the awakened mind. Our students are sumptuous moons–three quarters full–preparing to ride out in unbelievable millions of stars.

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