With Tenure

David Lehman - 1948-
If Ezra Pound were alive today
            (and he is)
he'd be teaching
at a small college in the Pacific Northwest
and attending the annual convention
of writing instructors in St. Louis
and railing against tenure,
saying tenure
is a ladder whose rungs slip out
from under the scholar as he climbs
upwards to empty heaven
by the angels abandoned
for tenure killeth the spirit
(with tenure no man becomes master)
Texts are unwritten with tenure,
under the microscope, sous rature
it turneth the scholar into a drone
decayeth the pipe in his jacket's breast pocket.
Hamlet was not written with tenure,
nor were written Schubert's lieder
nor Manet's Olympia painted with tenure.
No man of genius rises by tenure
Nor woman (I see you smile).
Picasso came not by tenure
nor Charlie Parker;
Came not by tenure Wallace Stevens
Not by tenure Marcel Proust
Nor Turner by tenure
With tenure hath only the mediocre
a sinecure unto death. Unto death, I say!
WITH TENURE
Nature is constipated the sap doesn't flow
With tenure the classroom is empty
            et in academia ego
the ketchup is stuck inside the bottle
the letter goes unanswered the bell doesn't ring.

More by David Lehman

The Difference Between Pepsi and Coke

Can't swim; uses credit cards and pills to combat
   intolerable feelings of inadequacy;
Won't admit his dread of boredom, chief impulse behind
   numerous marital infidelities;
Looks fat in jeans, mouths clichés with confidence,
   breaks mother's plates in fights;
Buys when the market is too high, and panics during
   the inevitable descent;
Still, Pop can always tell the subtle difference
   between Pepsi and Coke,
Has defined the darkness of red at dawn, memorized
   the splash of poppies along
Deserted railway tracks, and opposed the war in Vietnam
   months before the students,
Years before the politicians and press; give him
   a minute with a road map
And he will solve the mystery of bloodshot eyes;
   transport him to mountaintop
And watch him calculate the heaviness and height
   of the local heavens;
Needs no prompting to give money to his kids; speaks
   French fluently, and tourist German;
Sings Schubert in the shower; plays pinball in Paris;
   knows the new maid steals, and forgives her.

Operation Memory

We were smoking some of this knockout weed when
Operation Memory was announced. To his separate bed
Each soldier went, counting backwards from a hundred
With a needle in his arm. And there I was, in the middle
Of a recession, in the middle of a strange city, between jobs
And apartments and wives. Nobody told me the gun was loaded.

We'd been drinking since early afternoon. I was loaded.
The doctor made me recite my name, rank, and serial number when
I woke up, sweating, in my civvies. All my friends had jobs
As professional liars, and most had partners who were good in bed.
What did I have? Just this feeling of always being in the middle
Of things, and the luck of looking younger than fifty.

At dawn I returned to draft headquarters. I was eighteen
And counting backwards. The interviewer asked one loaded
Question after another, such as why I often read the middle
Of novels, ignoring their beginnings and their ends. when
Had I decided to volunteer for intelligence work? "In bed
With a broad," I answered, with locker-room bravado. The truth was, jobs

Were scarce, and working on Operation Memory was better than no job
At all. Unamused, the judge looked at his watch. It was 1970
By the time he spoke. Recommending clemency, he ordered me to go to bed
At noon and practice my disappearing act. Someone must have loaded
The harmless gun on the wall in Act I when
I was asleep. And there I was, without an alibi, in the middle

Of a journey down nameless, snow-covered streets, in the middle
Of a mystery--or a muddle. These were the jobs
That saved men's souls, or so I was told, but when
The orphans assembled for their annual reunion, ten
Years later, on the playing fields of Eton, each unloaded
A kit bag full of troubles, and smiled bravely, and went to bed.

Thanks to Operation Memory, each of us woke up in a different bed
Or coffin, with a different partner beside him, in the middle
Of a war that had never been declared. No one had time to load
His weapon or see to any of the dozen essential jobs
Preceding combat duty. And there I was, dodging bullets, merely one
In a million whose lucky number had come up. When

It happened, I was asleep in bed, and when I woke up,
It was over: I was 38, on the brink of middle age,
A succession of stupid jobs behind me, a loaded gun on my lap.

A Little History

Some people find out they are Jews.
They can't believe it.
They had always hated Jews.
As children they had roamed in gangs on winter nights in the old
    neighborhood, looking for Jews.
They were not Jewish, they were Irish.
They brandished broken bottles, tough guys with blood on their
    lips, looking for Jews.
They intercepted Jewish boys walking alone and beat them up.
Sometimes they were content to chase a Jew and he could elude
    them by running away. They were happy just to see him run
    away. The coward! All Jews were yellow.
They spelled Jew with a small j jew.
And now they find out they are Jews themselves.
It happened at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.
To escape persecution, they pretended to convert to Christianity.
They came to this country and settled in the Southwest.
At some point oral tradition failed the family, and their
    secret faith died.
No one would ever have known if not for the bones that turned up
    on the dig.
A disaster. How could it have happened to them?
They are in a state of panic--at first.
Then they realize that it is the answer to their prayers.
They hasten to the synagogue or build new ones.
They are Jews at last!
They are free to marry other Jews, and divorce them, and intermarry
    with Gentiles, God forbid.
They are model citizens, clever and thrifty.
They debate the issues.
They fire off earnest letters to the editor.
They vote.
They are resented for being clever and thrifty.
They buy houses in the suburbs and agree not to talk so loud.
They look like everyone else, drive the same cars as everyone else,
    yet in their hearts they know they're different.
In every minyan there are always two or three, hated by 
    the others, who give life to one ugly stereotype or another:
The grasping Jew with the hooked nose or the Ivy League Bolshevik
    who thinks he is the agent of world history.
But most of them are neither ostentatiously pious nor
    excessively avaricious.
How I envy them! They believe.
How I envy them their annual family reunion on Passover,
    anniversary of the Exodus, when all the uncles and aunts and
    cousins get together.
They wonder about the heritage of Judaism they are passing along
    to their children.
Have they done as much as they could to keep the old embers
    burning?
Others lead more dramatic lives.
A few go to Israel.
One of them calls Israel "the ultimate concentration camp."
He tells Jewish jokes.
On the plane he gets tipsy, tries to seduce the stewardess.
People in the Midwest keep telling him reminds them of Woody
    Allen.
He wonders what that means. I'm funny? A sort of nervous
    intellectual type from New York? A Jew?
Around this time somebody accuses him of not being Jewish enough.
It is said by resentful colleagues that his parents changed their
    name from something that sounded more Jewish.
Everything he publishes is scrutinized with reference to "the
    Jewish question."
It is no longer clear what is meant by that phrase.
He has already forgotten all the Yiddish he used to know, and
    the people of that era are dying out one after another.
The number of witnesses keeps diminishing.
Soon there will be no one left to remind the others and their
    children.
That is why he came to this dry place where the bones have come
    to life.
To live in a state of perpetual war puts a tremendous burden on the
    population. As a visitor he felt he had to share that burden.
With his gift for codes and ciphers, he joined the counter-
    terrorism unit of army intelligence.
Contrary to what the spook novels say, he found it possible to
    avoid betraying either his country or his lover.
This was the life: strange bedrooms, the perfume of other men's
    wives.
As a spy he has a unique mission: to get his name on the front 
    page of the nation's newspaper of record. Only by doing that 
    would he get the message through to his immediate superior.
If he goes to jail, he will do so proudly; if they're going to
    hang him anyway, he'll do something worth hanging for.
In time he may get used to being the center of attention, but
    this was incredible:
To talk his way into being the chief suspect in the most 
    flamboyant murder case in years!
And he was innocent!
He could prove it!
And what a book he would write when they free him from this prison:
A novel, obliquely autobiographical, set in Vienna in the twilight
    of the Hapsburg Empire, in the year that his mother was born.