I first heard this read by Dr. Mary Brown back about the time that the last Horn and Hardart’s closed its doors in 1991. I was attending Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion Indiana, having just changed my focus of study from theology to education and literature. Dr. Brown, I think your reading of this was better than mine, but please accept this tribute to the profound influence you had on my reading and understanding of American poetry.
I am not sure how the snow figures into the idea of wind and matches in a dry forest “about to go,” but then maybe I am thinking too much with my head and not enough with my imagination. There are parts of this poem which work like an impressionistic painting, more about feeling than about thought. There is a sense of isolation and desolation in a snow swept landscape, dry and barren, like the end of an age.
One needn’t know about the details of how the the waiter-less automat diner met its demise, done in by changing life styles of American diners and the rising popularity of fast food chains, in order to understand the emotions in this poem, but if it interests you, you can read a bit of Horn and Hardart’s history in the Smithsonian Magazine here:http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history…
It is enough to feel the ruminations of the poet here that are not quite nostalgia. There is a reverent sense of loss, but not a wallowing exactly. At the very least, the speaker of the poem is aware of how his “carefully blowing smoke into the ceiling” is a bit overdone. There is resolution here too, and a conviction that every experience in life is useful.
Read more about Muczynski here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history…
And more about the poet, Gerald Stern here: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/231
My apologies for not crediting the images, but all of them can be easily found via Google image searches. If I am using something that belongs to you, please let me know and I’ll be glad to give credit where it is due.
There Is Wind, There Are Matches
A thousand times I have sat in restaurant windows,
through mopping after mopping, letting the ammonia clear
my brain and the music from the kitchens
ruin my heart. I have sat there hiding
my feelings from my neighbors, blowing smoke
carefully into the ceiling, or after I gave
that up, smiling over my empty plate
like a tired wolf. Today I am sitting again
at the long marble table at Horn and Hardart’s,
drinking my coffee and eating my burnt scrapple.
This is the last place left and everyone here
knows it; if the lights were turned down, if the
heat were turned off, if the banging of dishes stopped,
we would all go on, at least for a while, but then
we would drift off one by one toward Locust or Pine.
— I feel this place is like a birch forest
about to go; there is wind, there are matches, there is snow,
and it has been dark and dry for hundreds of years.
I look at the chandelier waving in the glass
and the sticky sugar and the wet spoon.
I take my handkerchief out for the sake of the seven
years we spent in Philadelphia and the
steps we sat on and the tiny patches of lawn.
I believe now more than I ever did before
in my first poems and more and more I feel
that nothing was wasted, that the freezing nights
were not a waste, that the long dull walks and
the boredom, and the secret pity, were
not a waste. I leave the paper sitting,
front page up, beside the cold coffee,
on top of the sugar, on top of the wet spoon,
on top of the grease. I was born for one thing,
and I can leave this place without bitterness
and start my walk down Broad Street past the churches
and the tiny parking lots and the thrift stores.
There was enough justice, and there was enough wisdom,
although it would take the rest of my life— the next
two hundred years— to understand and explain it;
and there was enough time and there was enough affection
even if I did tear my tongue
begging the world for one more empty room
and one more window with clean glass
to let the light in on my last frenzy.
— I do the crow walking clumsily over his meat,
I do the child sitting for his dessert,
I do the poet asleep at his table,
waiting for the sun to light up his forehead.
I suddenly remember every ruined life,
every betrayal, every desolation,
as I walk past Tasker toward the city of Baltimore,
banging my pencil on the iron fences,
whistling Bach and Muczynski through the closed blinds.
From Early Collected Poems 1965 — 1992
Copyright, 2010 by Gerald Stern
2 Comments Add yours
What a great surprise, what a reading, what a poem! Astounded, speechless, shattered.
Wow, Ygor! Thank you for that great response. I am tickled that you liked the reading. This has been a favorite of mine since Dr. Brown read it in class years ago, since then I’ve come to have quite a fondness for Mr. Gerald Stern. I can see him with his crazy hair sticking up, pattering around in his big house in his bare feet all day. Sigh, yup, poets and eccentricity. Why didn’t anyone explain this to my exboyfriend?