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Gerald Stern: New Jersey’s First Poet Laureate

Lucky Life | The Dog | Lilacs for Ginsberg

Gerald Stern
Photo credit:©1994 Martin J. Desht. All rights reserved. Used by Permission of Gerald Stern.

Gerald Stern, New Jersey’s first poet laureate, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1925. He currently lives in Lambertville, New Jersey. Stern recently published Last Blue: Poems, 2000, with W.W. Norton. Stern taught for many years at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and currently lives in Lamberville, New Jersey. His 1998 collection, This Time: New & Selected Poems won a National Book Award. His other books include Odd Mercy, 1995, Break Without Sugar, 1992, which was awarded the Paterson Poetry Prize; Leaving Another Kindom; Selected Poems, 1990; Two Long Poems, 1990, Lovesick, 1987; Paradise Poems, 1984; The Red Coal, 1981, winner of the Poetry Society of America Melville Caine Award; Lucky Life, The American Academy of Poets’ 1977 Lamont Poetry Selection; and Rejoicings, 1973. Stern has won fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Council on the arts. He’s the recipient of the Paris Review’s Bernard F. Conners Award, the Bess Hokin Award for Poetry; the Ruth Lilly Prize, the American Poetry Review’s Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize; and the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. He often seems to reclaim things other people have abandoned. "I think I have a bone somewhere in my spine, or a wire somewhere in my system, or a feather, that attracts me endlessly to the ruined and fallen." he’s been quoted as saying. One critic has written that Stern’s poems, "explore past time and heritage, seeking to relocate them in an ecstatic present. In this quest, the poems resemble spiritual acts. They bestow attention upon all living beings and offer consolation for their senseless suffering." The poet has taught at dozens of colleges and universities, and lived in Manhattan before settling in Lambertville, New Jersey, near the Delaware River, a fairly rural area for which he seems to hold a particular affection.

Lucky Life

Lucky life isn't one long string of horrors
and there are moments of peace, and pleasure, as I lie in between the blows.
Lucky I don't have to wake up in Phillipsburg, New Jersey,
on the hill overlooking Union Square or the hill overlooking
Kuebler Brewery or the hill overlooking SS. Philip and James
but have my own hills and my own vistas to come back to.

Each year I go down to the island I add
one more year to the darkness;
and though I sit up with my dear friends
trying to separate the one year from the other,
this one from the last, that one from the former,
another from another,
after a while they all get lumped together,
the year we walked to Holgate,
the year our shoes got washed away,
the year it rained,
the year my tooth brought misery to us all.

This year was a crisis. I knew it when we pulled
the car onto the sand and looked for the key.
I knew it when we walked up the outside steps
and opened the hot icebox and began the struggle
with swollen drawers and I knew it when we laid out
the sheets and separated the clothes into piles
and I knew it when we made our first rush onto
the beach and I knew it when we finally sat
on the porch with coffee cups shaking in our hands.

My dream is I'm walking through Phillipsburg, New Jersey,
and I'm lost on South Main Street. I am trying to tell,
by memory, which statue of Christopher Columbus
I have to look for, the one with him slumped over
and lost in weariness or the one with him
vaguely guiding the way with a cross and globe in
one hand and a compass in the other.
My dream is I'm in the Eagle Hotel on Chamber Street
sitting at the oak bar, listening to two
obese veterans discussing Hawaii in 1942,
and reading the funny signs over the bottles.

My dream is I sleep upstairs over the honey locust
and sit on the side porch overlooking the stone culvert
with a whole new set of friends, mostly old and humorless.

Dear waves, what will you do for me this year?
Will you drown out my scream?
Will you let me rise through the fog?
Will you fill me with that old salt feeling?
Will you let me take my long steps in the cold sand?
Will you let me lie on the white bedspread and study
the black clouds with the blue holes in them?
Will you let me see the rusty trees and the old monoplanes one more year?
Will you still let me draw my sacred figures
and move the kites and the birds around with my dark mind?

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.

The Dog

What I was doing with my white teeth exposed
like that on the side of the road I don't know,
and I don't know why I lay beside the sewer
so that lover of dead things could come back
with his pencil sharpened and his piece of white paper.
I was there for a good two hours whistling
dirges, shrieking a little, terrifying
hearts with my whimpering cries before I died
by pulling the one leg up and stiffening.
There is a look we have with the hair of the chin
curled in mid-air, there is a look with the belly
stopped in the midst of its greed. The lover of dead things
stoops to feel me, his hand is shaking. I know
his mouth is open and his glasses are slipping.
I think his pencil must be jerking and the terror
of smell-and sight-is overtaking him;
I know he has that terrified faraway look
that death brings-he is contemplating. I want him
to touch my forehead once and rub my muzzle
before he lifts me up and throws me into
that little valley. I hope he doesn't use
his shoe for fear of touching me; I know,
or used to know, the grasses down there; I think
I knew a hundred smells. I hope the dog's way
doesn't overtake him, one quick push,
barely that, and the mind freed, something else,
some other thing, to take its place. Great heart,
great human heart, keep loving me as you lift me,
give me your tears, great loving stranger, remember
the death of dogs, forgive the yapping, forgive
the shitting, let there be pity, give me your pity.
How could there be enough? I have given
my life for this, emotion has ruined me, oh lover,
I have exchanged my wildness-little tricks
with the mouth and feet, with the tail, my tongue is a parrot's,
I am a rampant horse, I am a lion,
I wait for the cookie, I snap my teeth-
as you have taught me, oh distant and brilliant and lonely.

Lilacs for Ginsberg

I was most interested in what they looked like dead
and I could learn to love them so I waited
for three or four days until the brown set in
and there was a certain reverse curl to the leaf by
which in putting my finger on the main artery
beside the throat I knew the blood had passed on
to someplace else and he was talking to two
demons from the afterlife although it was
just like the mountains in New York State since there was
smoke in the sky and they were yelping and he was
speaking in his telltale New Jersey English
and saying the same thing over and over the way he
did when he was on stage and his white shirt was
perfect and the lack of air and of light
aged the lilacs but he was sitting on a lily
in one or two seconds and he forgot about Eighth Street
and fame and cancer and bent down to pick a loose
diamond but more important than that he talked
to the demons in French and sang with his tinny voice
nor did he go on about his yellowing sickness
but counted the clusters and said they were only stars
and there were two universes intertwined, the
white and the purple, or they were just crumbs or specks
that he could sprinkle on his pie nor could he
exactly remember his sorrow except when he pressed
the lilacs to his face or when he stooped
to bury himself in the bush, then for a moment
he almost did, for lilacs clear the mind
and all the elaborations are possible in their
dear smell and even his death which was so
good and thoughtful became, for a moment, sorrowful.

Copyright © 2001 by Gerald Stern. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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