The last few weeks in the news have been . . . Well, honestly, I don’t think I have words for them yet, and so I have retreated this weekend into poems, and into handling such delayed tasks as (finally) working out the settings between the microphone and the new laptop, and avoiding other things I probably should be doing. And so there arises this post. Poems like this, along with others I’ve recorded this morning, help give me hope. In beauty, in humanity–good words to cling to, even if they seem unrelated to our current heartaches.
I first heard this poem read by Dr. Mary Brown about the time that the last Horn and Hardart’s closed its doors in 1991. Her reading left quite an impression on me. And I’ve been in love with Gerald Stern ever since. The original recording of this was from 2010, and the audio was just bloody awful, so I decided this morning to redo it with the newer Rode NT mic.
I apologize now for the parade of schmaltzy images. But some of them were just too hard for me to let go of. Like the speaker in the poem, I decided that they “were not a waste,” and while I could update the audio, the rest would stand pretty much as I made it, an imperfect creation, by the fumbling, but enthusiastic YouTuber I was six years ago.
Perhaps it’s not necessary to know all the details of how the waiter-less automat diner met its demise, done in by the changing lifestyles of American diners and the rising popularity of fast-food chains. But you may enjoy reading a bit of Horn and Hardart’s history in the Smithsonian Magazine.
My apologies for not crediting the images, but this was put together with what I think were mostly copyright-free photos. If I am using something that belongs to you, please let me know and I’ll be glad to remove it, or to give credit where it is due. Like most of the things I’ve recorded here, it is done without seeking official permission from the poet. I hope the good man takes it as a compliment, and I hope you go buy one of his books!
There Is Wind, There Are Matches
by Gerald Stern
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