University Open Day

English was the uncoolest: awkward people
reading Shakespeare in a room.
We got trapped, but managed to get out
before the poetry started.

Food Tech was okay, with fresh bread
dyed to look mouldy, and bright blue juice
that it was easy to guess was lemon.
You could buy cans of air, too.

There was a long queue at Chemistry
because you got to make potions.
One of the white-coats
came rushing out in a real lather.

Psychology had us reading
a short paragraph describing ‘Mr Smith’,
then answering questions about his
personality. Opinions divided neatly.

The trick turned out to be a single word.
Some paragraphs described Mr Smith
as ‘warm’, others as ‘cold’.
The psychologists beamed cleverly.

‘Applied commonsense,’ snorted a man
wearing a Microbiologists
               are Little Buggers T-shirt.
Outside, padded eggs were being dropped

from a rooftop. Engineering.
People kept saying Vet was best.
It had the cow with the glass panel.
Actually, the panel wasn’t that interesting,

sort of dark and red. The cow
was eating hay in a small concrete room.
Mostly it just ate, but now and then
it would look sadly round at everyone,

and that’s when I got to thinking
about philosophy.
The department wasn’t easy to find.
It turned out to be a single office

down a badly lit corridor.
A faded note on the door said
‘Back in 10’. And so
my education began.

James Brown lives in Wellington with his partner and two children. He is a contract writer/editor, and also works part-time at Te Papa. He would desperately like to find more time to write. ‘University Open Day’ comes from his latest collection, The Year of the Bicycle (Victoria University Press, 2006).

Brown comments: ‘I worked particularly hard on three aspects of this poem: the voice, the narrative and the form. The speaker is a school-leaver, so their voice couldn’t quite be that of an adult, but anything too teenage would have been wrong, too. The nature of the voice naturally placed restrictions on the poem’s language, reducing the scope for dazzling linguistic displays and, in so doing, placing extra pressure on the narrative as another way of engaging the reader. Like The Year of the Bicycle as a whole and many of its poems individually, ‘University Open Day’ is a journey. By the poem’s end the speaker knows a little more about the world than they did at the beginning. Four-line stanzas are the form I use most in The Year of the Bicycle — especially in sections one and two where the younger protagonists require more structure. (In section three, lists predominate, and, by section four, stanza-less free verse has really kicked in). In ‘University Open Day’ the form works like a series of rooms, through which the speaker and reader move, pausing just long enough in some to sample the various offerings. The offerings themselves are partly made up and partly based on experience.’

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