A Parable of the Mifflin Streak
I have often climbed Mount Nittany and spent afternoons and sometimes all night gazing at the valley and the campus. In my mind I would wander, trying to find a deeper meaning in the commonplace things which are often dismissed as unimportant. One day I was sitting on Mount Nittany thinking of what had happened last spring at the “Mifflin Streak.” That was when the idea of this poem came to me.
The poem is not set on campus, but begins at the foot of a mountain as an initiation ceremony. The poem would seem to have no connection to the Mifflin Streak, except in the wandering mind of a poet.
The initiation described has no counterpart in fact except that I freely admit to borrowing from newspaper accounts of initiations at other colleges at other times.
These verses were not written to be skimmed with the eyes, but to be read aloud, several times, moving the lips, giving a chance for the rhythm to be physically felt and for the images to take sensual form. The goal is not to convey information, nor to make a point, but to break through the crust of everyday experience. For poetry is, in its best sense, our deepest longings taking form in our imagination, bringing our senses into congruence with the deepest felt experiences of our civilization.
Assembled under ancient trees
On paths once strode by Indian Braves
Initiates of a noble order
Waking spirits from their graves.
Eyes enfolded in a kerchief
Cannot see to walk or stand
Up the Mountain blindly climbing
Hand on shoulder, hand in hand.
Footsteps groping through the forest
Feeling for each stone and leaf
Crossing logs and brooks and gullies
Hearing whispered ancient beliefs.
Trusting blindly to tradition
To those who walked where they now tread
Beating hearts must trust in friendship
To someday lead where they’re now led.
Past the ledge where ancient fires
Warmed the hunters, cooked their kill
Spirits of brave men long ago
Still take away the dark night’s chill.
At a pool of deep still water
Guides remove the kerchief blind
The young boys stare at stars reflected
In the pool and in their minds.
At the spring they taste the water
Which anoints them deep inside
Makes them part of past primeval
Awakening what they thought had died.
Now it lives! And they’re the vessels
Bodies with new lives to wear
Dreams unfolding, visions rising
From depths they did not know were there.
They sense within them spirits moving
They hear old cries of victory
They feel the deaths — and births — of heroes
And lose their fear of agony.
Then on they walk in wonder waiting
Each mind reeling, then at peace
Blindly following ever upward
Led to unknown mysteries.
Walking through the forest primeval
Under vaults of ancient trees
‘Til they feel they’re in an opening
Their blinds removed so they can see.
In the clearing men stand naked
Sons of fathers, sons of sons
Leaping flames and blazing fires
Beckon to the chosen ones.
Light illumines awe-struck faces
Unexpected shock appears
Dismay, concern at what will happen
‘Til the voices calm their fears:
“You do not live in just this moment
Others before you faced it, too
You will stand here naked next year
Feeling the fear we felt from you.
“The nakedness you see before you
Is not for you to touch or feel
Pleasure is not what man was made for
Higher goals will be your seal.
“For the beauty of the gods in heaven
Is not their flesh, it’s not their youth
That’s only the visage of their spirit
To be a man is to seek the truth.
“But truth’s alarming, truth’s unsettling
Truth does frighten, truth is spurned
That’s the reason for this baring
This the lesson to be learned:
“Never fear the naked body
Never fear the naked soul
Never avoid the naked truth
And never reject the naked role.
“Never fear humiliation
Don’t fear suffering, pain or tears
The mark of a man is never flinching
The only thing to fear — is fear.
“If you have courage and heart and honor
You’ll stand naked before all men
You’ll follow your heart where ere it leads you
Into the flames or the lion’s den.
“So learn this lesson, learn it well, boys,
On this our brotherhood depends:
Having guts is all that matters
When that is lost, our brotherhood ends.”
This is how the bond is fashioned
Naked truth becomes a trust
Fear transformed by faithful listening
Words can now break through the crust.
The men now dress in sacred clothing
Cloaks of honor, caps of care
Naked truth, a source of loathing
Now is something they can bear.
Now they circle round the camp fire
Each one sits to form a ring
Then the elders rise to face them
Each in turn to speak and sing.
Now are told the ancient stories
Here the secrets are revealed
Now the spirit’s incarnated
Here the fellowship is sealed.
Then silence. The fire dies to embers
And in the dark, stars reappear
The men in cloaks resume their journey
Young men follow without fear.
As they walk they see the stars are
Growing closer, step by step,
The earth recedes, the ground grows farther
They’d enter heaven if they leapt.
They walk until they reach the summit
Of the sacred Mount they climb
Here occurs the last experience
Which must break the bonds of time.
For time corrupts and time effaces
Time’s the enemy of man
Unless it’s formed in timeless places
A bond can shift like shifting sand.
When they reach the highest point
Where the Mountain touches sky
Here each man beholds his brother
Stares him sternly in the eye.
Hands reach out to pluck the stars
And place them where his brother sees
From this night on his brother’s eyes
Will be his mark of loyalty.
When stars replace the eyes they glisten
Streams of diamonds flood the face
Stars are the eyes of gods and angels
The beauty seen by the oldest race.
Nothing can efface this moment
Can’t erase this time or place
Each man sees within his brother
The starry eyes of all the race.
At that moment every man
Who has ever lived or ever died
Is still alive and sees them seeing
And gazes right back through their eyes.
Then the gaze is quickly broken
Resurgent time has healed the breach
Timelessness has no duration
The stars are once more out of reach.
In silence they begin descending
And wonder if they’ve dreamed it all
‘Til tears they see on their brothers’ cheeks
In the light of stars like diamonds fall.
Now they know the sacred meaning
Understand why time was breached
Their eyes now see down through the ages
Farther than they’ve ever reached.
The ancient wisdom’s been transmitted
As it’s always been from age to age
The light of the world is in their eyes
As was foretold by the ancient sage.
They’ll never talk of what has happened
Never say what they have seen
But they’re now men of deeper courage
Deeper strength and deeper dreams.
And each evening they remember
The time they climbed that Mountain top,
Recall the naked truth they learned there
And the time when time was made to stop.
Something happens on that Mountain
Something to do with faith and stars
It’s easy to know just who’s been up there
Look for the men whose eyes see far:
Naked truth becomes their passion
And they seek stars most men don’t seek
And timeless eyes watch o’er their sons
And diamonds glisten on their cheeks.
An Imaginary Student’s Response
“And if this hasn’t happened to us
Why has it not? I’d like to know
The stars in the sky seem far away
Where di the men of courage go?
“Let’s climb that Mountain, pluck the stars
Two for your eyes, two for mine
Brothers and guts we know we need
We’ve got to stretch the bonds of time.
“We’ll learn the secrets on our own
Like all such things, they’re plain to see
We’ll search the wisdom in old books
Until we’ve found the ancient key.
“Such a quest is worth all efforts
Nothing else will suit my eyes
Until I find the men of courage
And see the watchers in the skies.
“And if you won’t go, I’ll go alone
I’ve got to overcome my fear
Damn it! There is more to life
Than textbooks, classes, parties, beer.”