Words for Queens College

by Stephen Stepanchev

Rising, rising,
I walk toward the skyline
Where Manhattan rides
The gray waters of the East River and the bay.
   I walk by lilacs with heart-shaped leaves
And pyramids of bloom
Purpling the air.
Bees hum in the blossoming cherry trees,
Which rise, as always, out of themselves,
The death they were.
 I walk by buildings rising for a global reach:
A bell tower ringing for the history
It houses: here the great makers of the past
Sit on their shelves and speak their monologues,
A din of truths.
And in the buildings given over to science
Scholars refine by experiment
The languages by which the universe
Can know itself.

Rising, rising out of the subways of the self,
The self-pity of illness, loss of friends,
I walk with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass in hand
And think of the Great Depression, years of death, When a vision of the future moved New York City
To build a college on this hill,
Here where a school for wayward boys once stood: Here where I found a message on a sill:
A homesick boy had scrawled there: "Ma, I love you."

That cry still haunts me as I recall the years
Of pain, the darkness more intense than light,
Deterioration of spirit, damaging grief.
We may still be living in a leaden time,
Shadowed now by a rising mushroom cloud.

Rising, rising, I see a portly ghost
Come back to Paumanok, his native island,
Walt Whitman rises from my boot-soles, takes
My hand, and shows me waves of immigrants
Come to renew the land. He shows me a passage
From India, Korea, Latin America.
He shows me the oceans lapping against this hill,
Carrying voyagers in wide-eyed dream
To the gleaming torch of the lady in the harbor.
He shows me that life, not death, is permanent.
  He leads me to a lilac bush, breaks off
A sprig, and gives it to me with a smile.
I salute him. It is now my golden bough
For the millenniums opening up ahead.