Poem for a University, 1999

Chicago is not in Chicago.

Chicago lies south, a little drive

down the lakeshore. South on

Lake Shore Drive, the water

shines so blue-gold to your left,

the tenements grey to your right.

The Museum rises, lost white relic

of fair days long gone, when

strippers danced the Midway,

those strips of grass just south

of Chicago. These buildings are

grey gothic. Gargoyles crouch

everywhere, disappearing into

the stone. It will take you four

years, at least, before you know them.

The heart lies in the quadrangle,

quartered lawns where in the

best of springs, mathematicians

juggle, balls and clubs in sharp

geometries. It is rarely warm

enough for that, but when

the temperature climbs above

forty, we sit on the grass, we

spread out our books and

exclaim — how beautiful it is!

And when the brief spring

gives way to killing heat,

when the old ladies are

suffocating in the old grey

tenement buildings, the

students scatter. Lawns

are almost deserted, and

those who stay live a lifetime

in three short months.

Love blooms and dies,

so gorgeously, in August.

We explain to the new

children that there is a law

of conservation at work here —

misery levels must be

maintained. Fewer inhabitants

means greater misery for those

who remain. In October,

they return — bright swarms

of eager minds. Enthusiasm

will not last long — winter’s

coming, and abstracted old

professors struggle to catch

us before we begin to forget

to remember. At Christmas,

it empties again. Briefly. My

first Christmas at Chicago,

I made love for the first time,

in the quiet dormitory

by the lake. He studied physics

then, and I knew little more

than poetry. He never

graduated — one of Chicago’s

many casualties — but

before he left, he showed me

how to climb across the grey

gothic roofs, how to shout

love words into the lake air

past midnight, how to talk

about Nietzsche, and the Bible,

and Wittgenstein, and Chaucer

till dawn rose above us, quite

nakedly. I think that much

I will remember.


M.A. Mohanraj

January 6, 1999

(for Jed, who asked about places, and for Dean)