Dear Derrida

by David Kirby

                     My new grad-school roommates and I are attending
           our first real lecture, which has gone okay,
we guess, since none of us understands it,
                     when one of our professors rises,
a somewhat prissy fellow
           with a mild speech impediment,
and says he takes issue with the speaker’s tone,
                     which he characterizes as one of “sar, sar,”
and here he raises his voice a little,
           “sar, sar, sar,” and wipes his mouth

with a handkerchief, “sar,” and turns red
                     and screams, “sar, sar, sar—DAMN EET!—sarcasm!”
The four of us look at each other
           as if to say, Hmmmm, nothing like this
at the cow colleges we went to!
                     After that, whenever we’d spill our coffee
or get a sock stuck in the vacuum cleaner,
                     we’d look at the mess ruefully
           and say, “da, da, da—SARCASM!—damn eet!”

                     Our lives were pretty tightly sealed,
           and if we weren’t in class or the library,
either we spent our time in wordplay
                     or cooking: what with girlfriends
and passersby, we always had a pot
           of water boiling on the back of the stove
(It’s like you’re ready to deliver babies,
                     somebody said once), either for spaghetti
or sausages, though one evening Chris,
           the English student from England, came by

for a sausage supper, and after he left,
                     we ran up on the roof to pelt him
with water balloons, though when we did,
           he fell down as though he’d been shot,
and one of us said, Jeez, what’s wrong
                     with Chris, and somebody else said,
You know, Chris eats nothing but sausage,
                     and a third party said, Hmmmm,
           maybe we ought to vary our diet a little.

                     And that was our life: school, the boiled messes
           we made on that stove, and hanging around
that crummy apartment talking about,
                     I don’t know, Dr. Mueller’s arm,
I guess, which hung uselessly
           by his side for reasons no one
fathomed—polio, maybe, or some
                     other childhood disease—though Paul
said he thought it was made of wood.
           Can’t be made of wood, said Michael,

you can see his hand at the end
                     of it, to which Paul replied,
Yeah, but you can have a wooden arm
           and a real hand, can’t you?
And that was what our life was like,
                     because mainly we just sat around
and speculated like crazy while
                     the snow piled up outside,
           so much so that by the time spring came,

                     I’d had it, so I moved out of there and in with Grant
           and Brian and Poor Tom, who were philosophy
students but also genuine bad asses,
                     believe it or not, because at that time
you more or less had to be an existentialist,
           i.e., tough, and not a deconstructionist,
which was a few years down the road yet
                     and which would have left everyone
paralyzed, since all texts
           eventually cancel themselves out.

Of the new roomies, I hit it off best
                     with Grant, who became one of the big-brother
types I seemed to be looking for at that period in my life,
           and in fact he rescued me
on more than one occasion, such as the time I was talking
                     to a local girl outside a bar
called Jazz City and her three brothers
                     decided to “teach me a lesson” and would have
           if Grant hadn’t punched one of them

                     across the hood of a parked car, or the night
           he and I were in this other place where
a biker gang called Quantrill’s Raiders
                     hung out and into which wandered
a well-dressed couple so unaware
           of their surroundings that they asked the bartender
to please make them some hot toddies,
                     which set everybody to laughing,
only the Quantrills decided we were laughing at them
           and jumped up to “teach us a lesson”

and would have, too, if Grant had not thrown
                     a table at them and dragged me
out of there to dive behind some garbage cans
           and choke on our own laughter
while the drunk, fucked-up bikers howled
                     and swore and punched each other since they
couldn’t punch us. All this was therapy,
                     I figured, since grad school was stressful enough
           to send three people I knew to the clinic

                     with barbiturate overdoses (two made it,
           one didn’t), and I’m not even listing here
all the divorces I know of that were directly
                     attributable to that constant pressure
to be the best, be publishable, hireable,
           lovable, that came from professors and sweethearts
and parents but mainly from ourselves,
                     as though each of us were two people,
a good and capable slave, on the one hand,
           and, on the other, a psychotic master

who either locked us up with our pots
                     of boiling water or sent us out to dance
with the devil in the streets of Baltimore.
           That year magi appeared from the east:
Jacques Lacan, Tzvetan Todorov,
                     Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida
brought their Saussurean strategies
                     to the Hopkins conference on “The Language
           of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,”

                     where they told us that all language
           is code and thus separate from reality,
and therefore everything
                     is a text as long as there is nothing
more than this half-conscious
           linguistic interplay between perceiver
and perceived, which is another way
                     of saying that language is the only reality
or at least the only one that counts.
           As different as these thinkers are,

each was telling us that there is no us:
                     that cultural structures
or the media or Western thought
           or the unconscious mind
or economic systems make us
                     what we are or what we seem to be, since,
in fact, we are not, which isn’t such bad news,
                     if you think about it, because it means
           we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously.

                     Derrida and company make it impossible
           for anyone today to read a book
as they had before, but we didn’t know that then.
                     Grant didn’t, that’s for sure;
four years later, he put a gun in his mouth
           and blew the back of his skull off,
and sometimes it makes me sad
                     when I think of how long it takes
for new ideas to catch on, because,
           yeah, deconstruction might have saved us.

David Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor at Florida State University. A Johns Hopkins Ph.D., he is the recipient of five Florida State teaching awards.

from The House of Blue Light (LSU Press, 2000). Reprinted with the permission of the author.