May is a month of commencement speeches and graduation parties and time to reflect on how far you have come since your own such celebrations. Still, there is nothing like physically returning to your alma mater where you studied ad infinitum through the night, prayed the printer worked 15 minutes before class, made best friends by lucky circumstance and earned every drop of ink on your diploma. For me, last weekend’s fortuitous return to Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English recreated powerful emotions and rich memories from my four remarkable summers earning a master’s degree in English there.
Winding up Vermont Route 125 past acres of evergreens, snaking along side a wild mountain stream, the campus of marigold two and three story structures hits you with a surprising bang of color. Since its auspicious start in 1920, on the backbone of the iconic American poet Robert Frost, Bread Loaf soon claimed its place as the pinnacle of study in literature and writing.
The center of the campus, the Bread Loaf Inn, has an even longer tradition and maintains a charm all its own. Being part of such tradition catches fire within you and burns for years to come, blending time periods, much like the Inn itself, from the Second Empire style architecture to the modern conveniences such as wifi. But don’t be fooled by the up-to-date computers facility in the basement of the library, for there are no radios or TVs present on this campus, nor reliable cell service. Bread Loaf maintains the feel of a rural writers’ retreat even as it culls global professors who link you to literature from everywhere.
The Bread Loaf Inn, no longer open to the public, is home to students enrolled in the summer season. And yes, even summer evenings in Vermont can come with a northern chill that only roaring flames in the marble fireplace can warm: the cozy rocker a popular location as you make your way through Joyce or Woolf or time to stare into your own thoughts.
The Little Theater is one of the few white buildings on the campus and it is here that the great writers of the last century first let their private manuscripts echo out to an audience. From welcome lectures to musical concerts to poetry readings to theater productions to commencement ceremonies this building has held the magic of this singular establishment. Quite by surprise, during my recent visit, I was invited to read at the closing ceremony of the New England Young Writers’ Conference (as a teacher/chaperone), and recited the following poem for the occasion. Although the references are quite particular to Bread Loaf, I hope all of you who recall your own places of importance will find a way inside my imagery and feel the weight of being in your past and your present all at once…
Inside this one-story white structure
I am drawn upward by reverent constellations
my attention lifts
beyond exposed rafters
Poet’s smoky metaphors drifting
me into a shadow world past.
here in place, in this place, interred inside
these plaster walls, residing on wooden chairs
shape us hopeful writers. In this Little Theater words
like quilt pieces shift opaque
their crescendo made poetic by precision
fleeting phantoms captured while hearing
the click click
of our own native tongue. Here I learned
to chase the feral animal across the wet field
into tall trees
just beyond the stone wall.
My crew filled the back row while I
closer to the stage
among my graduating peers
our hands folded over solemn gowns
anticipated the hooding.
I love that all those I love sat in this
dark wordy world. Today or any day,
we resurrect voices
resound across the dandelion speckled
grass ping-pong between marigold clapboards
this clapping north wind. Yellow pencils culled from twisted-up
buns, from low-slung back pockets pull
a string of perfect pearls
on tattered sheets we recite ourselves, inspire catcalls
up on light feet regaling wordsmiths. Thunder
crashing into Bread Loaf.
I loved the thunder directed at me, as well as the vantage from the podium as I surveyed the roof rafters and those 250+ smiling faces.
Now only an empty box, this phone booth was for eons, the only means to connect to the outside world. Now-a-day students consider this phone-less relic as a part of the Bread Loaf history, while we now move forward with our digital stories.
The largest structure on campus, second to the Inn, is the Barn, part classroom space, part student center; everyone has a story or two to tell from within these walls. From early morning classes to Saturday night dances, the significant portion of one’s day might be spent there. Sun shine, blue sky, leafy trees, and the clear voices of those you remember, fill in the rest.
This oh so special place will forever echo with sounds of New England birds, the chatter of great literature, and my ever bursting imagination that through fostering came to be as real as a green field and that unforgettable ridge line…