In the spring of 2020, our department and people around the globe were facing the unknown. The pandemic had abruptly upended the academic year, forcing all classes and graduation ceremonies online. In May of 2021, we’re still grappling with the disease. I’m no expert, but like many others, I didn’t think the recovery would take so long. According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, over 151 million people have contracted Covid-19 and 3.1 million people have died. It’s staggering. Many families, including my own, have been impacted. But it’s also true that there are many things to celebrate as we move forward. Vaccines are working and being distributed. Public spaces are opening up. Catholic University welcomed students back to campus for spring semester, we’re holding commencement, and we’re planning a full return to in-person instruction next year.
Currently I’m teaching an online course in the twentieth century American novel. I’ve enjoyed it, but I regret that I didn’t get to know many of my students—especially those who are graduating—more fully. Zoom is useful, and I’m grateful for it—how would we have managed without it?—but the internet is a poor substitute for face-to-face interactions. All of our graduates should feel proud of their abilities to surmount the difficulties they faced and great about their accomplishments. Please know that you always will be one of us, and that you are more than welcome to return to campus. Stay in touch, no matter where your paths take you! And I hope that our graduates will keep reading and writing. Great literature provides a catalyst for thinking about life in all its complexities. Writing helps us hone our thoughts and convey them precisely. Together they make us more complete, more fully human, and more able to engage our professional and personal lives. Together, they help us find meaning in unexpected places.
UNDER THE VULTURE-TREE
By David Bottoms
We have all seen them circling pastures,
have looked up from the mouth of a barn, a pine clearing,
the fences of our own backyards, and have stood
amazed by the one slow wing beat, the endless dihedral drift.
But I had never seen so many so close, hundreds,
every limb of the dead oak feathered black,
and I cut the engine, let the river grab the jon boat
and pull it toward the tree.
The black leaves shined, the pink fruit blossomed
red, ugly as a human heart.
Then, as I passed under their dream, I saw for the first time
its soft countenance, the raw fleshy jowls
wrinkled and generous, like the faces of the very old
who have grown to empathize with everything.
And I drifted away from them, slow, on the pull of the river,
reluctant, looking back at their roost,
calling them what I'd never called them, what they are,
those dwarfed transfiguring angels,
who flock to the side of the poisoned fox, the mud turtle
crushed on the shoulder of the road,
who pray over the leaf-graves of the anonymous lost,
with mercy enough to consume us all and give us wings.
David M. O'Connell Professor of English
Executive Director, Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers
Chair, Department of English