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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Number 84: Gerald Stern "The Dancing"

The Dancing

In all these rotten shops, in all this broken furniture
and wrinkled ties and baseball trophies and coffee pots
I have never seen a post-war Philco
with the automatic eye
nor heard Ravel's "Bolero" the way I did
in 1945 in that tiny living room
on Beechwood Boulevard, nor danced as I did
then, my knives all flashing, my hair all streaming,
my mother red with laughter, my father cupping
his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,
half fart, the world at last a meadow,
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop--in 1945--
in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home
of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing--in Poland and Germany--
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.

-- Gerald Stern

Hap Notes: Gerald Stern (born 1925) was born to Eastern European immigrant parents who were Orthodox Jews. He was brought up in a fairly tough neighborhood in Pittsburgh. His much beloved sister, Sylvia, died at nine years old from spinal meningitis. He attended the University of Pittsburgh, was in the Army Air Corps, got his master's degree from Columbia and then spent his life teaching English. He taught at high schools at first then had positions at several different colleges including Temple University, Indiana University in PA, University of Iowa, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia.

His poetry is a sweet and salty mix of American; part big city savvy, part chatty conversational small town guy. In amidst it all is his Jewish upbringing which often makes him play tricks with the time almost like a magical Hasidic Kabbalah master.

In the poem, first we see an old shop (a thrift store? a Salvation Army Store?) filled with odd things: baseball trophies, neckties, broken furniture, coffee pots. They are domestic things that make him think of things he grew up around and he remembers his family's old radio, the Philco with the "automatic eye" like the one in the masthead picture above. He remembers he and his parents dancing in their tiny living room to Ravel's "Bolero." It was 1945 and they would probably have danced to anything, though- it was more than likely VE Day and the war was over-- everybody was dancing.

The Mellons, who one often thinks of as the donors of paintings and charity funds, were notorious strike breakers at the beginning of the 1900s and reputedly used machine guns to intimidate the striking workers. There's too much history in that one little phrase in the poem but the Mellons certainly had their evil side with a monopoly on aluminum that they jacked the price up on so high that U.S. Secretary of the Interior in 1941, Henry Ickes said, "If America loses this war it can thank the Aluminum Corporation of America.”

Note also that the objects he mentions at the beginning of the poem sort of put one in mind of things that got piled up or discarded during the war. One can almost see the stuff outside of a bombed building (well, maybe not the baseball trophies per se.) If you want a literal translation of his "knives shining" and his "hair streaming" I can't give you one, I've always thought of it more as figurative symbols of youth's sharpness and wildness.

Stern published his first book of poetry at 48 so while his knives may still be as shining as ever, his hair probably isn't streaming and his adult take on the world is both joyous and cautious. We may get to another of his poems this year, a favorite of mine, "Kissing Stieglitz Good-Bye" which uses photographer Alfred Stieglitz as a basis for some magical reminiscing. Oooh, and there's another great one "Behaving Like a Jew" maybe I'll salt them both in or maybe have a whole Stern week.

Stern has won scads of poetry prizes and grants and awards.

Here's a good Stern quote from a PBS interview: "When I was - I don't know - I always - when I was in high school and in the army and in college, I was always writing poetry, and I thought everybody was writing poetry. I just thought it was a normal activity. I was doing the other things - dating, playing football, drinking beer, et cetera, playing pool, but always I was writing poetry."

and a great one from Rumpus magazine: "The artist looks for a subject. You know, a lot of new poets don’t seem to have a subject. I don’t totally understand that. I did a reading recently at The New School for Best American Poetry; I published a poem there this year. Anyway, there were some very good poets at this reading, but there were also some who seemed more interested in being funny and making cute jokes and writing endlessly about nothing. It was narcissism, indulgence, no social consciousness, no sense of… We’re destroying the earth! We live in a country that’s governed by confusion and lies and that operates through greed and selfishness and cruelty. We’ve killed or forced into exile two million Iraqis. Where is the poetry? What are our important poets doing?"

You can find more Stern here:

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