Tiger Face by Stephen Dunn
When I wrote about my graduation ceremonies last March, I said that it was both awkward and perfect. My heels have already killed me even before the march has started. We all just died of the heat. I took my Alumni oath barefoot, and teared up a little, in spite of myself, when it was all over. I was sad because I wanted some people to be there, I was happy because it’s over, for fuck’s sake, oh, four years.
There were gimmicks up the stage and it was amusing to watch the deans struggle to keep their cool: those who curtsied, those who raised their fists in the air, those who wore lipstick but were undoubtedly not women, those who proudly declared six years of studying, those who made the Star Trek hand signal thing, those who went down the center stage instead of exiting to the left. The valedictorian speech bored the hell out of me, I still wished it was someone different. The inspirational speaker bored the hell out of everyone. Conan O’Brien, still has the best commencement speech in the world. To boot, my grandparents were in the john when I went up the stage, my father slept through the first part of the ceremony, and the car overheated after graduation. But: I sang the school song with all my heart, surprisingly. I hugged my friends tight because it was important to share the moment. That waiter, Marcus, at CPK was the best waiter one could have. My favorite mentor called to say congratulations, even though I couldn’t hear her voice.
The last four years flashed before me as I stood there with my fake diploma, how I changed and not changed, how the world still waited outside: I am still fat, I am still in love with Frank Sinatra, I am still stupid enough to miss someone I shouldn’t, I still count steps and windows, I still tack pins on the world map hanging on the back of my bedroom door. And yet: I haven’t smoked in two weeks, I no longer have a dog, I kind of listen to rock music once in a while, and I can finally win in a game of Hearts. Such accomplishments, really, deserve a few beer bottles.
But oh, but oh, what of the world outside. What of falling in line to do grown-up things? What of wanting to be yourself, but losing your choices? What then, what then. These thoughts course through my mind as we drive home, the lights passing over my face. Whenever a new world opens itself up to me, always, always I don’t know whether I should just let go, or fall back.
So finally, to end this sap, a poem:
Because you can be what you’re not
for only so long,
one day the tiger cub raised by goats
wandered to the lake and saw himself.
It was astounding
to have a face like that, cat-handsome,
hornless, and we can imagine he stared
a long time, then sipped
and pivoted, bemused yet burdened now
with choice. The mother goat had nursed him.
The others had tolerated
his silly quickness and claws.
And because once you know who you are
you need not rush,
and good parents are a blessing
whoever they are, he went back to them,
rubbing up against
their bony shins, keeping his secret to himself.
but after a while the tiger who’d found
his true face
felt the disturbing hungers, those desires
to get low in the reeds, swish his tail
Because he was a cat he disappeared
without goodbyes, his goat-parents relieved
such a thing was gone.
And we can imagine how, alone and beyond
choice, he wholly became who he was—
that zebra or gazelle
stirring the great blood rush and odd calm
as he discovered, while moving, what needed
to be done.
From Loosestrife by Stephen Dunn, published by W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
I recently stumbled across a video of Stephen Dunn doing a reading of this poem at The Poetry Center Paterson, NJ. He mentioned he was inspired to write this poem by a visit of Joseph Campbell (American Mythologist).
The poem immediately resinated with me. I then wanted to read it, this is when I came across your blog. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to seeing some of your other favorites.
capturing the human condition with such precision. Reminds me of Jacob Needleman and the need to “awaken”.. to discover who we really are is met with tremendous opposition from our fortified ego. I can only hope to recognize my true face in this life time.
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