Gerald Stern

Gerald Stern is an American master. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1925, Stern himself had no mentors. He grew up in a home without books, a child of immigrant parents, and studied philosophy and political science in college. His first book was published in his 48th year, earning him instant critical acclaim. “I thought you read poetry,” he says, “and, like a spider, you did it from the threads of your own belly. So it made me wait for a long time before I got some success. Decades. But at the same time, it made my poetry, whatever came, me.” When he burst on the scene in the early seventies, The Chicago Tribune Book World anointed Stern “the most startling and tender poet to emerge in America in a decade.” From the start, his poems reflected a deep connection to the natural world and to places and things abandoned. Stanley Kunitz once told him, “You are the wilderness in American poetry.”

As William Matthews wrote, Stern is “a poet of ferocious heart and rasping sweetness.” By now, he has written eighteen books of poetry that ponder the weight of history and the buoyancy of memory, the casual miracles of relationships, and the endless possibilities for joy. They include Lucky Life, the 1977 Academy of American Poets Lamont Poetry Selection, This Time: New and Selected Poems, winner of the 1998 National Book Award, American Sonnets, short-listed for the International Griffin Poetry Prize and, most recently, Divine Nothingness. Like Walt Whitman’s, his work—a transformative celebration of the stuff of daily existence—is as gritty, lush, rageful, sticky, hilarious, and humbling as life itself. Stern is also the author of four works of prose, What I Can’t Bear Losing: Notes from a Life, Selected Essays, Stealing History, and, forthcoming in 2017, Death Watch. At 91, rather than slowing down, he’s speeding up. As The San Francisco Chronicle put it, Stern’s work “crackles with his exuberance, impatience and apparently consuming need to get his stories down.”

Stern’s many accolades include a Guggenheim fellowship, a PEN award, the Paterson Prize, four National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, the Wallace Stevens Award, a fellowship from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Ruth Lilly Prize for lifetime achievement. In addition to many years on the faculty at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Stern has taught at Columbia University, New York University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of Pittsburgh. He served as the first Poet Laureate of New Jersey, Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and, in recent years, as Distinguished Poet in Residence for the Drew University MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation.

Poetry Center Readings:
Fall 2003
Fall 2011
Fall 2016

Behaving Like a Jew

When I got there the dead opossum looked like
an enormous baby sleeping on the road.
it took me only a few seconds-just
seeing him there-with the hole in his back
and the wind blowing through his hair
to get back again into my animal sorrow.
I am sick of the country, the bloodstained
bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of the grilles,
the slimy highways, the heavy birds
refusing to move;
I am sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything,
that joy in death, that philosophical
understanding of carnage, that
concentration on the species.
–I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death.
I am going to behave like a Jew
and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,
and pull him off the road.
I am not going to stand in a wet ditch
with the Toyotas and the Chevies passing over me
at sixty miles an hour
and praise the beauty and the balance
and lose myself in the immortal lifestream
when my hands are still a little shaky
from his stiffness and his bulk
and my eyes are still weak and misty
from his round belly and his curved fingers
and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.

From THIS TIME: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (W.W. Norton, 1998)

Grapefruit

I’m eating breakfast even if it means standing
in front of the sink and tearing at the grapefruit,
even if I’m leaning over to keep the juices
away from my chest and stomach and even if a spider
is hanging from my ear and a wild flea
is crawling down my leg. My window is wavy
and dirty. There is a wavy tree outside
with pitiful leaves in front of the rusty fence
and there is a patch a useless rhubarb, the leaves
bent over, the stalks too large and bitter for eating,
and there is some lettuce and spinach too old for picking
beside the rhubarb. This is the way the saints
ate, only they dug for thistles, the feel
of thorns in the throat it was a blessing, my pity
it knows no bounds. There is a thin tomato plant
inside a rolled-up piece of wire, the worms
are already there, the birds are bored. In time
I’ll stand beside the rolled-up fence with tears
of gratitude in my eyes. I’ll hold a puny
pinched tomato in my open hand,
I’ll hold it to my lips. Blessed art Thou,
King of tomatoes, King of grapefruit. The thistle
must have juices, there must be a trick. I hate
to say it but I’m thinking if there is a saint
in our time what will he be, and what will he eat?
I hated rhubarb, all that stringy sweetness-
a fake applesauce-I hated spinach,
always with egg and vinegar, I hated
oranges when they were quartered, that was the signal
for castor oil-aside from the peeled navel
I love the Florida cut in two. I bend
my head forward, my chin is in the air,
I hold my right hand off to the side, the pinkie
is waving; I am back again at the sink;
oh loneliness, I stand at the sink, my garden
is dry and blooming, I love my lettuce, I love
my cornflowers, the sun is doing it all,
the sun and a little dirt and a little water.
I lie on the ground out there, there is one yard
between the house and the tree; I am more calm there
looking back at this window, looking up
a little at the sky, a blue passageway
with smears of white-and gray-a bird crossing
from berm to berm, from ditch to ditch, another one,
a wild highway, a wild skyway, a flock
of little ones to make me feel gay, the fly
down the thruway, I move my eyes back and forth
to see them appear and disappear, I stretch
my neck, a kind of exercise. Ah sky,
my breakfast is over, my lunch is over, the wind
has stopped, it is the hour of deepest thought.
Now I brood, I grimace, how quickly the day goes,
how full it is of sunshine, and wind, how many
smells there are, how gorgeous is the distant
sound of dogs, and engines-Blessed art Thou,
Lord of the falling leaf, Lord of the rhubarb,
Lord of the roving cat, Lord of the cloud.
Blessed art Thou oh grapefruit King of the universe,
Blessed art Thou my sink, oh Blessed art Thou
Thou milkweed Queen of the sky, burster of seeds,
Who bringeth forth juice from the earth.

From THIS TIME: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (W. W. Norton, 1998)

Grass and Water

The geese have their heaven and I have mine,
though both are made of grass and water and both
have sudden and subtle bridges where the carved stone
changes color under the presumptive arches,
and it is microcosmic and symbolic
so I could be there lying under the stars,
if it is one of the hazy afternoons,
and even mistake the birdlime for the Milky Way
or one drop of water in the sunlight
for one of the late afternoons, though nothing I know
will save them even though their eggs are like steel,
even though their guards are wise; whereas I
still am struggling, I with the soft egg, I
with the infantile presidents. You should see me
explaining things to them, below the bridge
this side of the river, not for one good second
ridiculing them. I still am reading and thinking;
I still am comparing; and I am spending my time
like one or two others in understanding, that is
a type of heaven too, at least for me it is,
holding on to the stabbed uprooted sycamore.

From AMERICAN SONNETS (W.W. Norton, 2002)