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Peter Balakian reads his inauguration poem for 
Brian W. Casey.
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Inauguration Poem for Brian W. Casey
By Peter Balakian

Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor in the Humanities, Recipient, 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

1.

Brian, we’re here in the granite slashed green,
the tire mud ruts—the federal houses
and Greek Revivals of the Underground Railroad. 

What are the common wages Dylan Thomas asked—

painted Victorian ladies
with mansards and widow walks
the white trailers and shacks along the valley lines,

the fast food tarmac tails off into the ponds
and trails behind silos and cows grazing
near the white lines of the highway.

The back roads are never glib
The antique stores are full of emptiness
but essential things—

The trailers and shacks are American
emanations of what’s failed and what’s resilient—

where the hard water pours.

Colgate is solid from its boulders and stones
fan lights and mullions, the cupolas
and crusted grout—of 1819—

2.

And you—Brian—you come flying—

in your black Land Rover
over states and fields and lakes
flying back to the northeast—

You come flying from Rumson New Jersey
and the good angels of Christian Brothers— 
Notre Dame, Stanford, Harvard, Brown, DePauw.

You come flying with your 200 fly
from the kaleidoscopic turquoise water
with your dolphin kick and power core

for the Alums and the Board
for the athletes of the sward

for the staff and the administrators
who keep us through wind and snow,

and for the students who come from 48 states
and 72 countries with their hunger for the Real.

You come flying with your keen eye
on the elegant or bad lines of buildings.

You who know
the eight o clock chapel,
gothic arches, the weeping President at the gate—

with your eye on the frozen music 
of Nostalgia—

on Amory Blaine’s incunabula—
and the gaze of students in the trail of sunsets.

3.

In time, we know, you’ll memorize the names 
the way Whitman did America.
La Iguana, Royal India, N13, Pub, Slices, Oliveri’s 
Rusch’s, Tavern 10, Whole Foods, Main Moon
just next to Maxwell’s where chocolate pours like lava.

In your reign may the divine culinary forces 
keep expanding and anything we can
do to help that happen please know
our doors are open—

4.

Brian, let me be elliptical and 
disjunctive—and say with candor:

we bless you under the signs
Athena and Hermes.

We hug you to the beautiful
unfathomable wreck
of knowledge and pedagogy—

the heart of our insistence that liberal
education remains the human process
that keeps civilization glued together.

Welcome to our pit of many discourses
the dense green hills of our syntax,
our paradigms and labs of discontent—
our babel of disbelief.

We are a mad lot
of scholars, artists, writers up on metaphysical bennies
and other speedballs of intractable force—

We believe in the classroom
as the playing out of the social
and intellectual life of our nation—

Brian, we all know together—
that we’re steeped in dangerous times—
the challenges are many—

we can all chant them together:
massive income inequality, racial injustice,
global violence against women,
climate change, the nuclear grid, imperialist wars
and their legacies of violence and terrorism,
genocide and refugee crisis—
self-deception and denial—

the challenges are here—as on every campus.

5.

This is a place of shifting landscapes
rolling green and affluence
colliding with back roads of smashed roofs and trailers. 

Cows—enduring fences—farms
stare at us every day as we drive by. 

May your leadership keep 
pushing Colgate into the America
that surrounds it, and may our work

as teachers, artists, scholars 
students, administrators, trustees, alums—
hug you into our two-century conversation.

The light is august, endearing, saffron, visionary
and sharp broken glass in January.

You’ll take to it with your particular eye 
We believe you’ll use this light to see through 
what you have to see through.

And for that you come flying
Brian, you come flying.

Notes: Brian W. Casey was a 200-butterfly swimmer in college;

his dissertation in American Studies at Harvard was on college architecture and the culture of nostalgia in northeast American colleges, 1880-1940. The phrase “come flying” owes something to Pablo Neruda’s poem “For Alberto Rojas Jimenez.”