Poem for a University – a poem

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)