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About this poet

Gerald Stern was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on February 22, 1925. His recent books of poetry include In Beauty Bright: Poems (W. W. Norton, 2012); Early Collected Poems: 1965-1992 (W. W. Norton, 2010), Save the Last Dance: Poems (2008); Everything Is Burning (2005); American Sonnets (2002); Last Blue: Poems (2000); This Time: New and Selected Poems (1998), which won the National Book Award; Odd Mercy (1995); and Bread Without Sugar (1992), winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize.

His other books include Stealing History (Trinity University Press, 2012); Leaving Another Kingdom: Selected Poems (1990); Two Long Poems (1990); Lovesick (1987); Paradise Poems (1984); The Red Coal (1981), which received the Melville Caine Award from the Poetry Society of America; Lucky Life, the 1977 Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; and Rejoicings (1973).

About his work, the poet Toi Derricotte has said, "Gerald Stern has made an immense contribution to American poetry. His poems are not only great poems, memorable ones, but ones that get into your heart and stay there. Their lyrical ecstasies take you up for that moment so that your vision is changed, you are changed. The voice is intimate, someone unafraid to be imperfect. Gerald Stern’s poems sing in praise of the natural world, and in outrage of whatever is antihuman."

His honors include the Paris Review's Bernard F. Conners Award, the Bess Hokin Award from Poetry, the Ruth Lilly Prize, four National Endowment for the Arts grants, the Pennsylvania Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize from American Poetry Review, and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. In 2005, Stern was selected to receive the Wallace Stevens Award for mastery in the art of poetry.

Stern was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2006. For many years a teacher at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, Stern now lives in Lambertville, New Jersey.

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From the Image Archive

 

The Preacher [As if the one tree you love]

Gerald Stern, 1925
As if the one tree you love so well and hardly
can embrace it is so huge so that with-
out it there might be a hole in the universe
explains how the killing of any one thing can 
likewise make a hole except that without
its existence there was neither a hole nor not a hole
I said to my friend Peter and after he left
I walked to the tree again and put my arms
around the trunk or almost did for I was
embracing it preparatory should I say 
to its dying for it was one of the many 
dying trees along my river mainly
sycamore and locust—

you must tire I 
said to Peter always hearing the same 
trees sung the same words singing, the same 
heart breaking I said and con permissione
I will change trees though I am almost eighty
now, but what the hell, there probably are
others along the river, though there was a point
when social security was kicking in I didn’t 
go to the palms nor did I go to Boca
to traffic in herons nor did I go to Miami
where my people walk around in scary 
black suits and hats perched over their other hats
just in case and just in case nor did I 
go to California nor stay in Iowa nor
buy a farmhouse in the Pioneer Valley 
south of Brattleboro, thanks God, thanks God—

and Peter interrupts me remembering a 
squirrel in Iowa that bit all the daisies,
a mad squirrel of sorts but certes  no madder
than our own hot shots with their squirrel rifles killing
squirrels from two miles up at wedding parties
of all things, of all things—

and that's what you
mean by a hole in the universe, isn't it, Peter
asks and he remembers the garden we built
and what we planted, how I went to the K-Mart 
and bought the cardboard planters and plastic trays
and how we built a fence—give way to groundhogs
ye black potatoes and brown tomatoes, and ah
the railroad ties there planted in gravel and it
was a hole he dug—I came home one day and 
he was into it up to his knees—

and Peter is 
tall, and he remembers the cosmos, I the 
delphiniums, but both of us hated that squirrel,
eating a daisy on the highest limb of 
my apple tree, the one that died, and she just
laughing and giving us the finger, and on my
cell phone he remembers how we drove to 
the kingdom of used lawn mowers, I on the way
yelling out the window to every mower
of hill and valley, how much will you take for
that lawn mower, that lawn mower, for 
there is progress, n’est-ce pas, isn't there 
Peter, I used to hate green grass but now I 
almost adore it, and what about the holes in
Europe and Asia I ask—

what of the holes in
this or that heart, he says—

I say repair it!

He says, and are you going to plant a Berber,
clever of hand, to cut the colored marble
and know how it looks a distance of five miles
as in that notebook you scratch away with your black
and red ballpoint you are so proud of, just like
the Berber chipping away knowing in your knuckles
what it will look like when it's finished, each scratch
critical though it's not as if you were writing
by the laws of Plato—perish the thought—it is
what it is—and you will look at it, you and me, 
and say "that’s right," not even, "that’s what I had
in mind," for it is your knuckles that write, still blessed
by suppleness, if not your hips, if not 
your knees, God bless your knees, God bless the cartilage,
God bless the ligaments—you with your hole in the universe,
so weird and extreme.

 Peter says this, and he
and I trail off and since he gave me a tape 
of Leonard Cohen with a voice so deep it shook
my red Honda, I thought therein did it lie, 
something about Vienna, something Brooklyn, 
her torn blue raincoat—or his—I can't get the gender 
right, the facts don’t add up, it's Jane  and it rhymes 
with Lili Marlene, that famous lamppost, the same
nostalgia, his song or hers, Peter loves the turn
and does his preacherly voice, we have just half
a minute or so to talk and throw sentences
at one another, "no-one knows what it means,"
that is his favorite, "no-one can understand it,"
"we walk around in a fog," I say that, 
"and live in a mist," "we are in a Russian
sweat house, climbing the bleachers, breathing pure steam."
"It's like the smoke," he says, "in a Chinese painting,
there are the mountains and there is the hut you’ll live in,
you barely can see the trees in the little gorge
left side of the hut, the green intense,
the tops of fir trees almost touching the steep
broken path;" "it's like living in a cloud,"
I say, "though the sun is shining, whatever that 
means, when you're healthy and money in your pocket, 
and walking five miles an hour by your favorite
body of water it's hard to remember the cloud, 
you are so sure of yourself."  

"What made you think 
of a hole the way you did?" he asks.  

"My figures
always start with the literal and the spreading
is like blood spreading," I say, "and as for for the wound it 
comes from growing up with coal, the murder 
of everything green, rivers burning, cities
emptied, humans herded, the vile thinking
of World War I and II, the hole in England,
the hole in Germany, and what we can't en-
dure, the hole in Japan, Truman, the third 
assistant baker's helper, he should pick at
his harp in Hell, when I read about
Tamurlane, say, and how he piled up the heads,
and David and the Moabites, he made them
lie down to see who was longer or shorter and put
half of them to death, it had to do with 
ropes, he may have piled up skulls for all 
I know, and Samuel the prophet loved him to pieces, 
and Herman Cortez and Genghis Kahn, but also, 
I hate to say it, private Sharon, pig 
Ariel, and the Lebanese jaunt, a massacre, 
as I remember—let's not forget the names,
Sabra and Shatila"—

"It's justice you want, 
isn't it?" quoth Peter.

From The Preacher by Gerald Stern. Copyright © 2008 by Gerald Stern. Reprinted by permission of Sarabande Books. All rights reserved.

From The Preacher by Gerald Stern. Copyright © 2008 by Gerald Stern. Reprinted by permission of Sarabande Books. All rights reserved.

Gerald Stern

Gerald Stern

Gerald Stern was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1925. His recent books

by this poet

poem
How you loved to read in the snow and when your
face turned to water from the internal heat
combined with the heavy crystals or maybe it was
reversus you went half-blind and your eyelashes
turned to ice the time you walked through swirls 
with dirty tears not far from the rat-filled river
or really a mile away—
poem

 

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poem
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