Letter of Recommendation

By Robert B. Shaw
Miss A, who graduated six years back,
has air-expressed me an imposing stack
of forms in furtherance of her heart's desire:
a Ph.D. Not wishing to deny her,
I dredge around for something laudatory
to say that won't be simply a tall story;
in fact, I search for memories of her,
and draw a blank—or say, at best a blur.
Was hers the class in that ungodly room
whose creaking door slammed with a sonic boom,
whose radiators twangled for the first
ten minutes, and then hissed, and (this was worst)
subsided with a long, regretful sigh?
Yes, there, as every Wednesday we would try
to overlook cacophony and bring
our wits to bear on some distinguished thing
some poet sometime wrote, Miss A would sit
calm in a middle row and ponder it.
Blonde, I believe, and quiet (so many are).
A dutiful note-taker. Not a star.
Roundheads and Cavaliers received their due
notice from her before the term was through.
She wrote a paper on . . . could it have been
"Milton's Idea of Original Sin"?
Or was it "Deathbed Imagery in Donne"?
Whichever, it was likely not much fun
for her. It wasn't bad, though I've seen better.
But I can hardly say that in a letter
like this one, now refusing to take shape
even as wispy memories escape
the reach of certitude. Try as I may,
I cannot render palpable Miss A,
who, with five hundred classmates, left few traces
when she decamped. Those mortarboard-crowned faces,
multitudes, beaming, ardent to improve
a world advancing dumbly in its groove,
crossing the stage that day—to be consigned
to a cold-storage portion of the mind . . .
What could be sadder? (She remembered me.)
The transcript says I gave Miss A a B.

Source: Poetry (September 1999).


This poem originally appeared in the September 1999 issue of Poetry magazine

September 1999
 Robert B. Shaw


Poet and critic Robert B. Shaw earned a BA from Harvard University, where he studied with Robert Lowell, and a PhD from Yale University. Influenced by Elizabeth Bishop and Philip Larkin, Shaw’s wry and plainspoken formal verse is often grounded in, or sprung from, the debris of daily life. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Solving For X (2002), which won the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize; Below the . . .

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