Chair Emeritus, Fulbright Scholarship Board
STRANGERS, NEIGHBORS, PIRATES AND FRIENDS
For Laura Skandera Trombley
Pirates of the prairie—
Here where ancient seas squeezed
into white stone and thundering black soil,
under millennia of golden, midday suns.
Voyagers—after the swell and storm,
the angry waves we have weathered,
arriving on the other side
of a dangerous time—let me just say,
you look as fine as cream gravy!
Friends, neighbors, in the way
Texans mean neighbors,
lovers of the hill country,
let’s remember and count our blessings
that every storm runs out of rain.
Huddle here again. Gather strength together
on this tranquil sea of dormant wildflower.
Restore your masts here—
ash and elm, magnolia and maple, redbud, pecan
and this ring of live oak that cradles us.
I’m new here, a stranger still.
But I wandered around these trees last night,
looking for your fabled Story Tree.
No one else was out, so I never found it.
The old oak told me nothing. Your secrets are safe, for now.
I came from elsewhere
to conjure some words with you,
share the mysteries of old etymologies
from way, way back, when
to teach meant to show, to learn was to follow.
to study meant to push, to knock,
beat with a stick to make a clearing place,
where time and noise and work go slow.
Thinking was amazement, quiet wonder,
being stunned, dazed and bewildered.
Of course, if you’re looking for work,
words like these can drive you nuts.
I hear you!
Not everything can be quiet or stunned.
A feeling of awe isn’t food on the table.
We love our loudness, the dam-breaking
sounds of struggle and ambition.
We believe in speed. We crave being
notified, verified, dehumidified, commodified,
satisfied not being satisfied.
And we need noise
if we are going to demand justice.
We need voice
to refuse to agree when we don’t,
to speak up when others want us to disappear.
We mustn’t ignore the symphony of sirens,
the dirges of pots and pans,
the scream of untruth.
The world is both our violence and our quiet.
Our dust storms and settled dust.
So here we are, in the robes and regalia
of make believe—costume of celebration,
but symbol of our burden to care,
our responsibility to fix what’s broken,
to tend to whoever is frightened and in pain.
Be kind, pirates and voyagers.
If one way of learning is to suspend disbelief,
let this be the place, the urgent time for us to ask,
What do we believe? Where do we place our trust?
Whom shall we welcome under these generous branches?
We can teach, cajole, inspire,
but we cannot pretend
we can make others believe.
We must earn
what we ask of others.
I was a farm boy.
I know what Texans mean when you say,
“If you’re riding ahead of the herd,
look back now and then
to see if they’re still there.”
Looking front and back—and here—
I’ve found you in the rhythm
of pattern book houses,
in the anticipated order of spring poppies
on the corner of Myrtle and 5th.
I’ve seen you at the bend of the river,
in quarries full of memory.
I’ve heard the rhymes you’ve made
of molecules, rules of evidence,
the evident tempo of talent in abundance.
Let me say it—
Let me echo your odes to ambition,
and the defeats that strengthen it.
Let me describe your hunger for answers,
your survival skills without them.
Let me mirror your laments
of a world warming with impatience.
Let me witness your discovery of truths
we will see through
the prism of our difference.
Voyagers, it’s time.
Tonight will be clear.
Watch the Moon getting fat again.
Look for the come-hither shine
of Venus, Saturn and Jupiter.
Get out there.
Take to the waves.
Dance, go crazy, get to work.
Find whispers in the whirlwind.
Look for surprise.
However you go,
take the joy of this day back to all corners.
Remember all the gorgeous galaxies
you saw here
in the faces of one another.
it’s your time.
Steal it, use it, pass it on, give it back.
Just remember to dream a little
before you think.
It’s my time too—
never to miss
a good chance to shut up—
to move on,
because we’ll all be back.