After tonight there are only seven days left of National Poetry Month, only seven more poets for me to read. I have not had a plan, or a chart set out from the beginning, and many days I did not know who I would read when I awoke, but this week I started to make a list, because, while I have so many favorite poets, there are certain ones that I don’t want to pass up, and some of them I will probably have to for lack of time. But then, I do videos on YouTube and will be doing more after April, just not at the speedy rate of one per day.
Tonight’s poet. How do I tell you? There is something about Gerald Stern that gets a lump in my throat. He’s one of the greatest living poets in my country, this country celebrating poetry in April. He is kind; he is irascible, and he is vibrant. The man has such a soul. What can I tell you? I suppose I feel some connection with him too since he was born in Pittsburgh and lived a while in Philadelphia, a fellow Pennsylvanian. The Poetry Foundation almost always has such great biography information, so you can read up on him more there. There is also a delightful little series on YouTube called “Still Burning” that I have watched more than once.
The first poem I heard of his was “There is Wind, There are Matches.” Something about the memories, the working of the mind over the past, something about that poem resonated with me. That was back in the mid 1990’s in a class on Modern Poetry. Dr. Mary Brown had a gift for reading that was measured and had just the right amount of emotion, not too much, not too sappy, never overshadowed the words with melodrama. My own cadence and inflection in my readings is heavily influenced by the classes I had with her. Listening to Gerald Stern read, I hear the words come out the way I heard them in my mind, or say them out loud when I read the same poem. That is rare. I hope I do his work justice.
I Remember Galileo
by Gerald Stern
I remember Galileo describing the mind
as a piece of paper blown around by the wind,
and I loved the sight of it sticking to a tree,
or jumping into the backseat of a car,
and for years I watched paper leap through my cities;
but yesterday I saw the mind was a squirrel caught crossing
Route 80 between the wheels of a giant truck,
dancing back and forth like a thin leaf,
or a frightened string, for only two seconds living
on the white concrete before he got away,
his life shortened by all that terror, his head
jerking, his yellow teeth ground down to dust.
It was the speed of the squirrel and his lowness to the ground,
his great purpose and the alertness of his dancing,
that showed me the difference between him and paper.
Paper will do in theory, when there is time
to sit back in a metal chair and study shadows;
but for this life I need a squirrel,
his clawed feet spread, his whole soul quivering,
the loud noise shaking him from head to tail.
O philosophical mind, O mind of paper, I need a squirrel
finishing his wild dash across the highway,
rushing up his green ungoverned hillside.