Gerald Stern: A Remembrance

Though he is not dead. A meditation on mortality and memory.

Photo by Martin J. DeshtI don’t know what poet Gerald Stern thought of my unfortunate two-door, ’93 aqua-colored Toyota Tercel with the license plate ELAFUNT. I had just gotten rid of the stuffed elephants that used to adorn the back window, hoping to make a better impression on my important passenger. I’m not sure it helped much, as he eased into the black pleather front passenger seat beside me, while my boyfriend Pete climbed awkwardly into the back. It was September. At least I wouldn’t have to reveal that the car didn’t have any air conditioning.

Gerald Stern’s last name fit him. He was gruff and we were shy college sophomores at Washington College and students of Dr. Robert Mooney, a champion of such writers as Stern. I was driving him to the train station, after a visit to Dr. Mooney’s Living Writer’s course. I decided that we should listen to some music, and so I put in a tape of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, with Dawn Upshaw singing soprano. It’s a haunting piece.

I remember finding my dad often lying on our blue-and-white striped couch in our living room, in the dark, listening to Górecki on the stereo, as loud as possible. I remember the quiet and low strings building and building toward the house-shaking crescendo. I knew better than to bother my dad in that state. As a teenager, I thought it was weird.

I found out after I went off to college that my dad had hepatitis C. I remember crying in Pete’s tiny dorm room; I thought I would lose my father. But a year after the diagnosis, Dr. Curry told him the blood test came back negative. He no longer had hepatitis C, a disease with no cure. I think that listening to the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is what healed him.

Górecki died on November 12, 2010. Somehow I remember reading in The Washington Post last year that Stern also died. I check again, and I find Stern is in fact still alive at 87. It was another poet who had visited Washington College, Ruth Stone, who had actually died in 2011. Stern. Stone. I’m not sure what Mr. Stern thought about some young college girl listening to such moody music, or if he knew that the darkness in her was darker than even she knew at the time.

When the tape ended, I popped in some Bob Dylan, because all poets love Bob Dylan? Mr. Stern was the first real poet I had ever met. Maybe I was trying to bridge the age gap between us. I grew up listening to Highway 61 Revisited on Saturday mornings at home with my family around the breakfast table. As a child, I thought Dylan was children’s music, hearing the songs from Slow Train Coming in the tape deck of the family Volvo station wagon on the way to soccer practice every week. “Man gave names to all the animals/in the beginning, long time ago.” I don’t know what Gerald Stern thought of Dylan, but I wanted somehow to believe that I must have impressed him, what with my Górecki and my Dylan.

I drove along the Maryland roads that I had visited and revisited, watching the cornfields go by. I think the sun was shining; it was early in the morning. I know this because when Pete and I went to pick up Gerald Stern, he and Dr. Mooney were still eating breakfast with the Mooney family outside on their deck. Bananas. Gerald Stern pretended to shoot at me with his banana when I refused one.

I said I wasn’t hungry, even though the truth is that I just don’t like bananas. Stern then joked that I was fat and said that I was so fat that I should eat something before I wasted away. “You must weigh 200 pounds,” he said. The fact is that I weighed 117 and my dad commented that I was turning into Kate Moss, I was so thin.

We kept on driving and I commented on Stern’s wonderful poem “I Remember Galileo” when I saw a dead animal — I don’t remember what kind — lying on the side of the road. There was an especially large amount of roadkill that morning; I think it had been prepared just for us so that we would have something to talk about. Roadkill. Dylan. Górecki. Bananas.

Ever since that day, whenever I see a dead animal on the side of the road, I think about Gerald Stern. Ten years after that trip to the train station, I somehow remembered the squirrel dying at the end of the poem, what with his terrifying “wild dash across the highway” ending with his “yellow teeth ground down to dust.” But the truth is that the squirrel lived. The squirrel is still alive. I opened my signed copy of This Time, with “I Remember Galileo” dog-eared. Rereading the poem all those years later gave me a sense of immense hope.

As I write this, it is September again, and I am attempting to rediscover my creative voice a few years of silence. I still listen to “Highway 61 Revisited” on Saturday mornings, and tonight I put on the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs for my husband, Andrew, to listen to for the first time. I still don’t like bananas. But, oh, the joy! The squirrel is still alive.

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 hot wind rushing through his hair,
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.

Article © 2013 by Rachel Wimer