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Evergreen Transformations

Text of Poem


‘‘Who knocks on my door?’’ asks History.
‘‘A bewildered confused student of yours
whose world asks more questions than it answers.’’
History asks, ‘‘Do you want facts or the truth?’’
‘‘You mean there is a difference?’’
‘‘My books record not what was said and done
but what men thought was said and done—
between the two truth sometimes leaks away.’’
In the beginning
one hundred years and more ago,
there was a building on a hill,
a shelter built for homeless children
made orphans by the storms of war.
This can be verified, some small research,
a spadeful or two dug from the past,
the bones are there, but the spirit?
What you call the truth lies elsewhere.
Ask the Phoenix that in deep Africa
flies to its secret tree and there in flames
consumes itself, then from the ash there rises
a brighter, more splendid vision of the bird.
There learn the truth of how the spirit lives.
When a date confronts us on the rock of ages
out of our human need we set a marker to say
we passed here. We lay stone on stone
to build a temple that keeps our testament
from oblivion’s greedy hands, and by its altar
pray to be reborn.


A temple of learning, let it stand
a marker to a noble aim, when claims
and counterclaims had burned away
something remained that shaped itself
inside the bricks and mortar, the empty rooms.
Wisdom teaches. Stronger than the tramp
of armed feet is an idea when its time
has come. Our country’s frontier
maps more than Indian and the buffalo.
Listen to pages turned, lessons read,
the squeak of chalk on blackboards,
pencils on slates, the meager chime
of taxes from the General Fund won with
oak muscled will for the congregation
of the chosen few. This is what lived
after the campfires died, where they made
their stand, the pioneers who looked for
the promised land with its springs to quench
the thirst young men and women felt
as they blazed new paths to follow
away from the wheel rut road. Schools and
churches mark the trail of the pioneer,
and always the hope, ever the hope.
‘‘New words for an old song,’’ said History,
‘‘that’s mostly the way it is, or crack an egg
and release life, or plant a seed to spread
more seeds to rise from the decay of the
mother and wear her colors.’’


Begin, yes begin, urged the teacher, today’s page
tomorrow will be yesterday’s, who knows what star
the telescope will find and reveal its light,
what parasite confess its toxin to the microscope,
what flowers unfold after a strange fertility,
even the words we listen for will find a new voice
in the halls of learning to bring an answer
or a question for an answer to those who hear.
New walls must wait for ivy but cornerstones
contain the message they were built for.
The ghost of Gilchrist Hall remembers
the Bachelor of Didactics, but the new auditorium spoke firmly
for the new Bachelor of Arts, its voice still echoes down
our corridors. Laurel wreaths for the men and women
who tilled the fields of mind willing to wait
until a later season for the harvest. The way
of the pioneer is hard and often leads to an
unmarked grave. They who followed, tenured professors
of a later day, spoke in polished syllables
of their concern for the pitcher that goes too often
to the well and lies in broken shards, yet still
revered when the new pot names the potter from
an old design. ‘‘Now is the time . . . all brave men . . .
quick brown fox . . . the winter of our discontent . . .’’
Signals from past spaces of learning strike the
antenna of a college listening in.
(Only when shadows fall as the light fades
does the bird transform itself.) Let a glimpse
of the way brighten eyes as young minds escape
the dark closet that has haunted men all their
lives. A student on one end of a log and a
professor on the other may make a university,
but buildings to house scholarship
have become the style. No matter, let life
be lived for its rewards—who dare say
it was wasted? The inspired dream lurks
in every corner.

Education, said History, is a two-edged knife
that cuts both ways and only he who knows
how to grasp the handle should test the blade.
One side may prune a dead branch from the
living tree, the other cut the tree down to
destroy the branch. Let each scholar wear a
placard saying, I am a dangerous person full
of signs and meanings, wielding the scalpel
of my trade to explore the body of culture,
until I prove my skill, you may not trust me.

History said, We live in the dark
not of caves only, we wear long shadows
cut to our measure by the shears of mind.
Cries of our prophets warn us as we plunge
down blind alleys to escape a future being
built from our playbox of thunderbolts.
A book may flash lightning, a page flare
with symbols, footnotes, engravings, words
that blaze to describe the fossils of
experience and we blink, wear dark glasses,
are dazzled. In flames the bird on its altar
reveals the miracle of resurrection that to us
seems not proven and like the sun blinds us
to its light.


The architecture of scholarship
survives, time may break stained-glass
windows and tumble stones, but the edifice
of faith and thought, poetry, art, harmony,
the probing sciences stands wherever men
have cherished it. Time, the vandal,
cannot tear it down, only men at war
with themselves in the heat of prejudice
can shake its walls. Scholarship walks
the corridors looking for open doors.
The petty politicians of the classrooms
squawk like parrots to repeat the thought
of wiser men, read coffee grounds as portents
and prove to students that a sow’s ears
can be made from a silk purse. But the challenge
of the mountain streams out in its flag of snow
and hardy climbers roped together
spend their lives in the ascent. These are
the true masters who have worked their way
from the image in the rock to the star that
shaped it. All is not vanity, the skilled
workman from the past quarries the stones
to build today’s chapel where students
begin their novitiate in the disciplines
of the humanities and sciences. Experience
is our dictionary. We learn its language
and meaning from our notebooks, words spoken
by the farmer, carpenter, priest and scholar.
We train our hands with thought, our minds
with the muscles of research, and with experiment.
Living is our aim, to learn to stand on
our own feet, speak our minds, find health
in the healing strength of our own character.
Now in the shelter of the University’s
everlasting arms is the time to dream
of revolution, to hoist new banners over
old glories, to know the worth of bread
and cheese and wine. We are free to fly
the balloons of dreams, to trim the fat
from rich promises. The coming days,
shrouded in their anonymity, may wear
the scornful masks of the master of slaves
or the open faces of free men. The will
to choose lies with the mind and eye
of the beholder. Then shall we learn
that nature is ever reflected in the
spirit of ourselves where life, blood-warm,
may nourish itself on peace and wisdom.

First Line
‘‘Who knocks on my door?’’ asks History
Original Pub Location
Original Publication Date
Original Citation
The Alumnus Univ. of Northern Iowa (Dec. 1976) 12.
Complete Poems
Word Count
Poetic Form
References and Commentary
Makes specific reference to University of Northern Iowa's campus locations and history.
Twitter Quote
We train our hands with thought, our minds / with the muscles of research, and with experiment.