Exemplum
by Philip Dacey


When my high school principal called up two
of my classmates and me onto the stage
at the graduation ceremony before
telling us or the audience why he was doing so,
all my Catholic guilt well-nurtured in that Jesuit
institution kicked in and I wondered what
I had done so wrong that the principal waited
until now to tell it to a crowded auditorium.

He wanted to urge, he said, all the businessmen
in the audience to consider hiring these young men
because in four years they’d never missed one day
of classes nor been late once that whole time.
You couldn’t get more reliable employees
than the three standing before you, he added
as he waved in our direction, and the audience
of parents and grandparents, with, no doubt, its share
of businessmen among them (no “businesspersons”
yet, this the Fifties), erupted in loud applause.

How right Fr. O’Malley was, and how wrong.
It’s true I haven’t failed so far to attend
any poem I’ve written nor even been late
for one and missed an opening stanza,
but a poem’s last line is not a bottom line,
being what one builds down toward, not up from,
and my workday’s one long coffee break inside
the lounge known as the dictionary, its pages
opened wide the only spread sheet I know.
A one-man sales team--’Got vowels? ’Got consonants?--
and ashamed I was so good a teenaged boy,
I now delight in roughing up a line
of verse, slowing it down, letting it hang
precariously, like a risky business venture
destined to leave the shareholders empty-handed.






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