Mudlark Flash No. 49 (2009)

The Institute for Higher Study

A Poem by Oliver Rice

Oliver Rice has received the Theodore Roethke Prize and twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His poems have been published widely in the United States, as well as in Canada, England, Austria, Turkey, and India. His book, On Consenting To Be A Man, was published in 2008 by Cyberwit, a diversified publishing house in the cultural capital Allahabad, India. It is available from Amazon. An interview with Rice in Creekwalker is a good and useful introduction to the man and his work.

MP3 Audio File LinkHear Oliver Rice read “The Institute for Higher Study” here . . .
Running time: 14 minutes, 21 seconds. File size: 13.1 megabytes.

The Institute for Higher Study

                        — 1 —

At dawn in the campus groves
the migrants descend from their flyways,
warblers and thrushes and grosbeaks,
to feed and rest by daylight
among the hickories and the violets.

Here on his nature walks
the Director escorts prospective donors
to confirm the inspirations of this ecology
for postdoctoral intellection.


Naked in faculty housing, sniffling and spitting,
the Nobelist in biochemistry reassembles himself
from the calamities of sleep, caring for his teeth.


Already the boy waiting for the school bus
is a nonentity,
grandfather revered in legends
of Mao and the long march,
father brilliant at paleontology and handball,
mother fearful even of the grocery.

The driver can remember summer days
when this was all cows and corn.

                        — 2 —

In a cubicle off the third floor stacks,
Corinne has taken her vantage on the day,
her humanity, and the cosmos,
awaiting a grand leap of intuition
in regard to the dimensions of quantum gravity
or the poles, perhaps, of elliptical galaxies.

At midmorning she will not understand
that outdoors it is not Copenhagen,
and at noon, when her junior colleague brings tea,
she will not know that Kepler is dead.


Around these earnest corridors
the gear of erudition is piled,
discipline by exquisite discipline.
Curators of the whole human agenda,
evolved persons of Oxbridge and Chicago,
or Berkeley and the Sorbonne,
failing lovers and hypochondriacs,
they contemplate linear fibrations,
the carnal elements of Moroccan masquerade,
Abelard of Bath, Dionysius of Alexandria,
biodiversity and Hegelian dialectic.


The shadow of a jetliner flashes
across the lawn below visitors’ parking
and shatters in the birches.
Auras of Archimedes and Euclid
swirl up in its wake.


Elsewhere in their retreats and vigils,
nostalgic for Heidelberg and Pisa,
Princeton and New Haven,
they interrogate the myth of the mad genius,
the geometry of superstring compactifications,
and the inscriptions of Aphrodisias in Caria.

The girls in administration, locals,
are collating a financial report,
due out frantically in the afternoon mail.
Harmon, assistant to the comptroller
and a twenty-nine handicap,
is proofing the final pages
in his cowboy boots.

They do not give a damn
about the most probable spot on Mount Olympus
where Pegasus threw Bellerophon to his doom.


Arab blood, Allegra is reflecting,
gazing out through an ivied wall,
is visible in the coastal towns of China.


All great modern ideas, Ian cites Faguet,
have their commencement in Montesquieu.


Michael listens, arms folded,
as the last speaker of the morning,
hardly more than a girl,
destroys eight years of his work.

She has an orthopedic appointment at four.

                        — 3 —

The subject of the luncheon seminar
in the sunlit garden room,
gift of a pharmaceutical heir,
is the spinster in Byzantium.


Here and there in the main dining room,
over barbecued chicken or pasta salad,
they remember the vodka in Warsaw
and the bearers in the old Mysore hotel
who brought tea in the morning on tiptoe.

At the very heart of things, they are saying,
is an immutable antithesis,
and it is the unique modern predicament
that thought cannot impartially examine itself.

In Bhutan, recounts the missionary’s daughter,
the trout belong to the king.

Oh, yes, drawls the esthete from Topeka,
the flesh of the peacock is delectable.

Sartre in his bad times,
remarks the Boer with the scar on his cheek,
often thought he was pursued by a lobster.

On the grass behind the machine shed,
Jack is asleep beside his mower, stoned.


Models of the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci
are on exhibit in the lounge.

                        — 4 —

An alertness, a vigilance scans the afternoon,
the wisteria, the sunshine on the roofs,
and the journals of the purest sciences
for whatever is intelligible,
whatever will make the bones of a book.

Deep in the archives they keep watch
on questions that have waited eons for syntax.


A truck pulls up to the warehouse dock,
loaded with repair parts for central heating.


To the Taoist, Oskar professes,
testing his bunion against his other foot,
all reality is ephemeral.
The soul of the dead emperor
may await tomorrow as a banyan tree.
A star may come to rest as a dragon
or a pebble in a stream.


Giovanni in his bachelor efficiency,
Dottore in Lettere, Instituto Veneto,
drapes closed and coffeepot charred in the sink,
sobs into his pillow.


All civilization has devolved upon this preserve,
upon this collegium whose reveries fret with death,
with pornography and disposable income,
who mutter to themselves of fossil civilizations,
of the lovelife of lysogenic bacteria
and the musical mode of East India
built entirely on the cries of animals.

Chagall, they are quipping in their footnotes,
was certain that Rembrandt loved him,
and the Seminoles had a place
so sacred that they never went to it


Is not the Mariana Trench, they are asking,
the deepest point on Earth?
Did not John Sloan say of a good picture
that it should tell you some of the things
a blind man knows about the world?
And does not the medicine man,
with his left forefinger,
make the zigzag lightning sign?


Up one and serving,
Ed composes a nasty note to go with the alimony.

                        — 5 —

It is the happy hour in the common room.
Some of the more restless are mingling,
the more autobiographical,
growing wistful or bellicose
or morbid, as the case may be,
growing extravagant over free elections
and how much pedal to use in Mozart,
over the sociopaths cruising the freeways
and the weeds in the Colosseum
that exist nowhere else.

They wish to quote Keynes on a global economy
and defend the right of the vulgar
to engage in despicable occupations.
For eighty-one years after its fall, they declare,
Vicksburg did not celebrate the Fourth of July,
and Thomas Mann said Tolstoy had no humor,
Dickens humor but little irony.

We may mutate, guffaws the Nigerian,
back to the protoplasmic mass.
What is the Pope’s position on genetic drift?

The holographic ballerina, explains Alice,
cannot stumble and therefore cannot thrill.

Let us not keep eternity waiting, they cry,
and go on to dinner at Rosie’s
and Casablanca and the Market Inn,
waving goodbye and calling good life to thy nose.


High in a poplar tree,
resplendent in his breeding plumage,
the scarlet tanager lifts off into the northern dusk.

                        — 6 —

From behind the news
Piet observes his daughter
setting the table in a funk,
sees an orphan
and wishes to be an abstraction.


Beyond the dining hall windows,
twinkling lights secure the campus walks
against barbarians of any sort.

Hosting his publisher at dinner,
although the food is less than continental,
Helmut casts preferential looks about the room,
confident of his mustache.

The salad girl believes she has been abandoned.

Jon is going through the serving line
with his wife and toddler.
It stares impassively
at all who chortle in its face.


Maurice and Stella, aging flower children,
are having organic food intake
in the dining ell of their holistic environment.


Emma dozes in her recliner.

                        — 7 —

The faculty string quartet
are having their weekly play,
two head bobbers among them,
the cellist a student ninth remove of Bach,
his tenth-grade son on second violin.


The intelligent consumer tidies her birthday list.


In the little Cape Cod across the playground,
auras of Clauswitz and Machiavelli
hover around the chess players.

Upstairs the mate is propped on her bed,
chain smoking and reading Tristram Shandy.


In certain dens and master bedrooms,
writing their sisters and trimming their nails,
they long to recover their certainties,
to still their turning lives,
whose fates have been 
to see through so many things.


Robin’s parents are visiting.


The Rangers are playing.

                        — 8 —

Sean walks the dog in his fragment of the night.
On a distant street a motorbike snarls.
He ponders, limping slightly from the war,
the inability of the Incas to invent the wheel.


The Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds
mumbles in his sleep.

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