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Poems composed in honor of our sesquicentennial

Helen and Dick Stahl present signed copies of Mr. Stahl's sesquicentennial poem posters to Augustana President Steve Bahls.
Dick Stahl, a 1963 graduate of Augustana, served as poet laureate of the Quad Cities from 2001 to 2003, and was the first person to hold the post after its creation by the local arts agency Quad City Arts. His books include After the Milk Route (1988), Under the Green Tree Hotel (1996), and Mr. Farnam's Guests (2004).

In celebration of the college's sesquicentennial, Stahl composed the following four poems.

FIRST WELL
1875

engraving on a rock
east of Old Main

When I found the rock engraved FIRST WELL,
I found the wellspring of Augustana College's
third location. I imagined
eager Swedish scholars huddled over
a small hole, smiling
as the silt and mud and gritty sand gave way
to clear water
for higher education. Water sounds rose
on this wooded hilltop like hymns for this liquid
calling. Water calls. Witness how theirs was a thirst and beyond.


HIGHER EDUCATION AT AUGUSTANA COLLEGE

On Alumni Weekend, I scaled
the Thomas Tredway Library Tower in sweat pants
because its steep steps, sharp turns
and square enclosure tested
my legs, lungs and brain to stretch enough
to keep them young. I took this
tower's geographical-center-of-the-campus climb
like a stack of thousands
of books, each title angled for an edge
to step higher into this air
and sweat it out.

At the top
in the blue room, I caught my wheezing breath
and rested my eyes
on the brown gazebo below. I took off
my soaked red sweatband.

Out its five candle-tall windows,
I saw Denkmann Hall's copper roof,
the Planetarium's swivel hemisphere,
the old Swedish Bell Tower's needle spire,
the cupola on Old Main's verdigris dome
and, on Zion Hill, Ascension Chapel's lifted-high Cross.

Some books are not on the shelf here.
Some are scattered across
this campus in a dizzying array of tops
and titles and copyrights that,
left unread, I drew perspiration
about neglecting this virtual roof-legible canon.

After my rhythmic steps down
the tower's almost winding stair, I turned
first to Denkmann to read another Augustana story.

MINISTRY OF WORMS

for Augustana's dining director Garry
Griffith and Milan farmer Jim Johansen

"That's my banana peel sliding out
of Garry's broken white trash sack! This green stem's
speckled, and my right thumbnail
bit down here this morning," I tell Jim.

My peeling's drawn
into this straight mound heaped
like a windrow
for the feeding redworms. It's gone
into Jim's rising piles of squeezed grapefruit, orange rinds,
rusty lettuce, cracked eggshells, split celery ends,
smoking coffee grounds and stamped bingo cards,
all biodegradable as the forks, spoons,
knives and straws made of switchgrass, potato starch
and bamboo fibers. As worms wiggle
into the skin of my breakfast treat, I work
my faith in consuming.

To eat is to move
and to move is to eat under this compost site
where 10,000 worms rise
to chew table scraps. Blueberry skins
and golden delicious apple cores prompt
humming the school song. This is a hymn, a calling,
a heaven-sent victory, a postage-paid package
for a green environment. These pilot pitchmen underwrite
their own poetry across the rolling Illinois prairie
with worms.

Everything turns around
like the worms themselves, heads up
to this fresh leaf-and-refuse pile. When the peeling's
a worm casting, Jim spreads
the simple fertilizer over his garden. He pulls up a carrot
from a row where he scatters compost.
He hands it to me, saying,

"Here's your banana peel. It's a miracle."


FIRST-YEAR STUDENT

You're sitting in my chair in Old Main!
It's hard at 8:30, and it won't get any softer
on ground floor. Wiggling won't help. I held this end seat
in the last row because last names ending in S
always sit in the back
of the room. Herr Must loved to call me
to the front in First Year German for a quiz
on the day's vocabulary. When conversation started,
I tried to think for myself before speaking.

Old Testament's at 9:30 on first floor
and closer to the center of a columned dome and cupola
crowning three stories as symmetrical as Uppsala.
Defining freedom in a new way up the steps,
I assigned myself a seat
in the middle of the first row.

Dr. Andeen pointed to Zion Hill
for my assignment. At the Augustana Theological Seminary,
I sat in a straight chair
at a heavy wooden table where I read
about a tentmaker who, on the road to Damascus, witnessed
the glorified Jesus
and was made whole. Blinded by light,
Saul of Tarsus became St. Paul. Outside, I turned around
to the steeple. I squinted. The sun stippled
the empty cross
and the skittish leaves
with tiny bright spots. You are entering

four years at Augustana College. There are many tiers
to Augustana's terraced campus,
and you will learn how to walk on all of them
and look up with love
on Beginning German and on Christian Traditions
before you wear the black graduation gown
that puts you on edge
right where you should be, eyes open, almost
as nervous as a first-year student.