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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Number 130: Gerald Stern: "Behaving Like a Jew"

Behaving Like A Jew

When I got there the dead opossum looked like 

an enormous baby sleeping on the road. 

It took me only a few seconds--just 

seeing him there-- with a hole in his back 

and the wind blowing through his hair

to get back again into my animal sorrow. 

I'm sick of the country, the blood-stained 

bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of the grilles,

the slimy highways, the heavy birds 

refusing to move;

I'm sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything,

that joy in death, that philosophical

understanding of carnage, that 

concentration on the species.

-I am going to be unappeased at the opossum's death.

I'm going to behave like a Jew

and touch his face, and stare into his eyes 

and pull him off the road. 

I'm not going to stand in a wet ditch 

with the Toyotas and the Chevys passing over me 

at 60 miles an hour

and praise the beauty and the balance

and lose myself in the immortal lifestream 

when my hands are still a little shaky

from his stiffness and his bulk, 

and my eyes are still weak and misty

from his round fingers and - 

from his round belly and his curved fingers 

and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.

-- Gerald Stern

Hap Notes: In this poem about grieving for the death of a living thing you may be wondering why Stern would bring up Lindbergh, the world famous heroic aviator who did much to advance planes and air travel. Maybe you already know that the pilot was also a famous racist who, for several years, while giving lip service to the functionality of the "right kind of Jews," was a supporter of Hitler and a virulent opponent of U.S. involvement in the war.

Lindbergh really wasn't a Nazi, though, he was a white supremacist who had some unusually racist views about breeding. Lindbergh was hoping that Germany would get into a fight with Russia and take its battles to the "east" (as in "far east".) Of course, Lindbergh faced a certain amount of public disapproval for this after the U.S. got into the war but, by then, millions of Jews had already been slaughtered. I don't believe he wanted anybody killed off but he did say this:

"Instead of agitating for war the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government."

Let's try to remember that Lindbergh was a high-school educated pilot and people are ninnies who take socio-political advice from heroes and pop culture figures. And also, let's consider that WWII and its horrors might have been avoided if capitalism had not smelled money in the air in Germany and decided not to watch what was happening very closely- ignoring (and in some cases just not believing in) the atrocities that were being committed.

And that takes us back to Stern's poem in which he refuses to ignore a death and mourns the loss of a possum on the road. He grieves for it as one vital creature and stops for a moment to consider that even the life of one possum is worth some dignity- worth consideration.

Might be worth pointing out that all those cars on the road were an outcropping of Henry Ford, another racist and friend of Lindbergh's. And the Toyotas? Get the WWII connection here? Does the word "concentration" take on new meaning here? Just asking.

And who is to say that one life, of no matter what species, is not valuable and worth considering?

When Stern (who was raised Jewish, by the by) says he is "behaving like a Jew," he's talking about honoring the death of a living being with some sort of formal/ritual consideration. The Jews have the practice of sitting shivah when a person dies. It's a seven-day (sometimes less, although shivah is the Hebrew word for seven) period of honoring the dead and allowing the living to openly grieve. The acknowledgment of death is an important step in healing but also a time to stop and revere a life. Here's a link to explain it a bit:

Stern is revering the life of this creature and somewhat lamenting our "passing over" things in such a hurry. Stern is also talking about the weight and physicality of death. This is no theory- it's real, and heavy. He tells us that all those folks hurrying from their "country" life to the city end up killing a lot of creatures on the road. I love his expression "animal sorrow." Don't you sometimes get that feeling that one animal has for another when you see a dead creature of any kind?

Have you ever seen the little fingers and toes of a possum? They are quite startlingly beautiful and human.

Stern is doing the opposite of "playing possum" here also. He's not faking his emotions, he's living them. Stern's poetry is often full of remembrances and reverence for life. His work is vulnerable without being sloshy or sentimental and always holds a tang of social criticism.

Possums, by the by, have opposable thumbs, just like human hands.

Here's where we have talked about Stern before:

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