Songs of Bleak College

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance


The fire that destroyed the college’s first incarnation resulted, as fires often do, in a song. “Fishes, Fishes, burning Bleak / on the last day of the week, / What immortal Injury / Could anybody do to thee?” Which was sung at football games—the Bleak Fishes being known, year in and year out, not so much for their skill as for their ability to absorb punishment. As the men of Princeton or Dartmouth or Cornell ploughed into Bleak’s linebackers, threw its receivers to the ground and entombed its quarterbacks, the Fishes seemed to whip themselves into a sort almost of ecstasy. They huddled with the grace of wraiths and floated into position on the scrimmage line; when the ball was hiked the receivers ambled downfield—but they were still a step or two ahead of the other team’s defense—and didn’t so much catch the ball as rise into the air to meet it, at which point the men of Princeton or wherever grabbed their legs and threw them to the ground with a savagery more often seen in pro wrestling. It only increased the Fishes’ uncanny ardor in the next play.

This strategy of using physical punishment to psychological advantage was the brainchild of the Bleaks’ great coach, Tosca “Tusk” Infantini, who led the team to the Ivy League championship eight times in the years 1956-1974. His finest moment: Bleak vs. Columbia, October, 1962. With the score tied at 20-20 and fourteen seconds to go in the game, Bleak’s kicker, Jimmy “Jemima” Salomon, punched himself in the eye, fell down and seemed to eat a mouthful of dirt, then rose and kicked the ball through the goalposts, twenty-seven yards away. At which point the crowd could only shout, “Bleak! Bleak!” or “Tusk! Tusk!” or (from Columbia’s side of the stadium) “Foul! Foul!” The Bleaks sang the song later, as they carried Jemima Salomon home on their shoulders.

The college has few other songs. There’s a maudlin number called “Bleak College Days,” written in 1924 and sung as infrequently as possible thereafter. There’s the chant sung by the secret society Ablette at its initiation ritual. It begins, “It is the fish that shines in darkness,” but only the initiated know how the rest of it goes.


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