It’s graduation day here at Poem Elf! Our guest poster, Chicago writer and editor Bridget Gamble, chose Dean Young’s “Commencement” to celebrate.
Unlike Bridget, I am not a lover of graduation speeches, having sat through more than my fair share of follow-your-dreams and follow-this-bit-of-whimsical-advice exhortations.
But I do share her heartbreak for the millions of graduates denied ceremonies this year. Thanks, Bridget, for a timely reminder.
[NOTE: If you enjoy Bridget’s writing as much as I do, you can subscribe to her weekly newsletter whelmed at www.bridgetgamble.com.]
And now to the podium, Ms. Gamble . . .
by Dean Young
I love you for shattering.
Someone has to. Just as someone
has to announce inadvertently
the end of grief or spring’s
splurge even as the bureaucracy’s
spittoon overflows. Someone has to come out
the other end of the labyrinth
saying, What’s the big deal?
Someone has to spend all day staring
at the data from outer space
or separating the receipts
or changing sheets in sour room after room.
I like it when the end of the toilet paper
is folded into a point.
I like napkins folded into swans
because I like wiping my mouth on swans.
Matriculates, come back from the dance floor
to sip at the lacrimal glands of chaos,
a god could be forgiven
for eating you, you’ve been such angels
just not very good ones.
You’ve put your tongue
into the peanut canister
of your best friend’s girlfriend’s mom.
You’ve taken a brown bag lunch
on which was writ another’s name.
All night it snows a blue snow
like the crystallized confessions
you’ve wrung from phantoms
even though it is you wearing the filched necklace,
your rages splitting the concrete like dandelions.
All that destruction from a ball of fluff!
There’s nothing left but hope.
I’ve been thinking about all the graduation ceremonies that won’t be happening this spring, and all the speeches that will never be. I may be in the minority, but I really love commencement speeches. I get goose bumps just reading them online. When my poetry professor in college, Danny Khalastchi, read this Dean Young poem to my class at the end of the spring semester during my junior year, it felt just as special to me as an actual commencement address. The opening line doesn’t seem to belong in a poem; it’s too risky, too cliché. But Dean gets away with it when he makes you laugh with lines about toilet paper and peanut canisters and not very good angels. Then suddenly, that last line—another one that only Dean Young can make feel fresh—knocks the wind out of you completely, just like you’d hope a commencement speech would.
Because I live near DePaul’s campus, I thought that was a good home for this poem. On a socially distant walk with my friend Casey, one of my best friends from college, we passed a stoplight that has an “I Closed Wolski’s” sticker on it. Wolski’s is a Milwaukee bar that we fell in love with (and managed to close once or twice) as college kids. So Dean’s poem belonged there, I knew. My wish is that someone experiencing grief in this pandemic—about a canceled graduation, or about anything—stumbles on it when they’re waiting for the walk signal, and feels some hope. Someone has to, right?