“More Perfect”

Written for Chancellor Diermeier’s investiture by Major Jackson, professor of English and director of creative writing; Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in the Humanities  

Let’s admit: today we wish for a different noise,
in the stands perhaps, staring at a diamond field
with our phones cheering on The Vandy Boys

but this high occasion as shall be revealed
claims us to mark a newish era in Kirkland
with the same solemnity Achilles passed his shield

to a young Patroclus, hence the grand
meters, hence, Dante’s terza rima form
which is its own armor and classical brand

though Alighieri’s likely not postered in Tolman dorm,
for walls are preserved for heroes, Mendeleev’s training
table and Bob Marley whose Rasta love I call forth

to this eminent platform. It is the ingredient I deign
argue Commodore Cornelius had in mind
when he sought to “strengthen ties” on the day

the cornerstone was laid, when the choir sang in
Wesley Hall in 1880: “Science and revelation here
in perfect harmony appear,” and thus installed,

from the Gilded Age, Vandy’s superpower, prescription & prayer, 
virtues I invoke now as wishful pillars in the semesters 
ahead, along with, say, a personal tour of West End Tower.

Thus, today, our pomp is recommitment as the news festers,
as our fingers scroll the missiled cities of Ukraine
on little screens, and while their children seek shelter

on the borders of Central Europe, we return to the painful
yet divine battle for human dignity, whether trans,
whether African, whether a woman seeking sovereign

control over her body. We walk again toward
the idea of a “perfect harmony.” Let research 
and art repair what Twitter has torn asunder.

Let’s model in our fight for an earth undisturbed 
by human hunger, alas, a carbon free campus, 
and where we disagree, we hold firm to the church

of civil talk: the classroom, imagine, where we discuss,
not block, others’ opinions, nor cancel, one Billy Shakespeare
whose Shylock is not a barrier to belonging but pushes

us to confront entrenched hatreds hard to unhear.
We are the happiest campus in the nation;
our trees are happy, our chancellor, our squirrels, 

all happy, not because we avoid confrontation 
but that our labs seek solutions, our stories
connection, and our monographs profound relations

of lyric feeling. Frankly, our happiness should be
patented, for we dream the dream of a more perfect
freedom, and go beyond talking points, beyond conspiracies

to fact-based, data-driven, soulful truths.
NATO and Putin should know an office is not a throne,
but a magical transport of service, a Phantom Tollbooth 

of epistemophilic zeal where a mind roams
and discovers what it feels with others on deck,
traveling as one seminar, building new homes

of insight hopefully devoid of Swedish furniture -- stylish, sleek, 
yet, at times, a little cold. War is a Loveless Café 
and power is merely symbolic, Thus sayeth Zizek,

and though our pockets wish today 
for cheaper gas we can at least, for now, celebrate 
the confirmation of a Ketanji Brown 

Jackson as Supreme Court Judge, her blessed fate.
Yoga keeps us flexible and Spotify ever ready
with song but we’d do ourselves even greater

service if we led with Rev. Lawson’s lessons and story
always at hand, if, in our quest, we seeded 
the courage of his students in harmony 

with their times at a counter on 5th, if we heeded
the voices of tomorrow. Freedom abhors
suppression, and Diane Nash is what is needed

to remind us of the potential of a Commodore.
Thus, we rely on the stewards of academic exchange
to embrace dissent or, further like A. Gore,

to sound the call on inconvenient truths. Stated plain:
“we encourage when we refuse to use the moral 
weight of [our] office to speak out,” sayeth Rev. C.T. Vivian.

Leading means at times stepping out of our lane and quarreling
with the world, which according to the Irish Yeats,
is rhetoric but wasn’t John Lewis’s poetry Good Trouble?

In short, the circle is love from whence I write,
aware of our fragility. Let’s incubate reason
and curiosity, then take our stand in honor of the light 

that anchors us in the value of a university
with a passion for the arts, a music that Blairs
from Broadway to Row, in perfect harmony.