poem #22

the professor
 
THE PROFESSOR THINKS ABOUT TURNING BACK
 
The rage of time inside the space
between his cupped hands and ears
was proof enough—he’d gone too far.
 
But it would be silly to turn back now,
halfway through a life, hunched over
at the long table in the cafeteria,
 
surrounded by gibbering omnivores
with their compartmentalized trays,
their divided lives…
 
He had a good chance at getting the Chair
if the Chair ever died. And his next book,
the important one—they’d expand
 
his Wikipedia entry. And what would he do
if he stood up right now and walked out, the pilaf
still steaming on his tray? Fishing?
 
TV? The Plebeians seemed to get by fine
with a six-pack and a lineup of celebrity game shows,
vampire sitcoms. He could blend right in.
 
The Korean man at the deli
wouldn’t think twice if he brought a bottle
of malt liquor to the register, asked for a pack
 
of Camel Lights. Thanks, Lee. See ya t’morrow.
And what would he be giving up?
After the lectures, the office hours,
 
the board meetings, the applications,
the hiring committee, applying for grants,
grading papers, reviewing the relevant journals,
 
after all that, to burn, to crave the unapportioned time
to sit down and what? Write his articles,
chase a fly around the room with a dish towel,
 
crack his neck, pace? And if he did give it up,
then at parties, when someone’s wife said,
And what do you do, Martin?
 
he could say, I work at the Port, offloading containers,
or, I run my own landscaping business. And she’d say,
No, you silly man, I mean, what do you do
 
do? What makes you get up in the morning?
And he would say, What do you mean?
And she would say, Never mind.
 
But of course, he wouldn’t be at parties like that,
at the parties he’d go to, no one would ask
what you do do. That would be nonsense.
 
But it wouldn’t be so easy as all that,
to get a job at the Port, start a business, etc.
And he’d put years of his life
 
into getting where he was now—a respectable position.
No, it would be silly to turn back now.
To turn away from the one thing he was good at.
 
Which was what, exactly? Obsessive
introspection? An unparalleled
ability to sit inside his own head
 
without going mad? Without going
mad? Without going mad?
Hello, class. I’d like to begin today’s lecture
 
with a thought experiment. Let us
imagine a man. He is just like me,
only older, and fatter, balder,
 
more able to get away with
being the acerbic asshole
he’s always been. He doesn’t drink.
 
He’s divorced. He wakes up at seven each day
and masturbates, before
making a pot of coffee, or plopping
 
a few ice cubes in the remnants
of yesterday’s pot. He eats
a bowl of cereal while grading the papers
 
he didn’t finish last night, he rushes to class,
discusses chapter six, catches himself staring
at the Chilean girl, gets flustered,
 
eats lunch by himself, arrives
at his afternoon lecture, locks the door,
puts a .38 special to his head
 
and says: What is happiness? Answer
in the form of a short essay. You have
until the end of the period.
 
– Horace Thursby Blandemeal, PhD
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