Li-Young Lee and Gerald Stern demonstrate how poems tell stories that resurrect the past.
BILL MOYERS [voice-over]: Glassboro State College in rural New Jersey. Poets from across the country gather to read their work and to share their experiences with the waiting and enthusiastic audience.
For some of the poets, it's their first time to meet. But for two, this is a reunion of good friends, one the teacher, the other his pupil. Li-Young Lee is a Chinese-American poet who recently published his first book of poetry, to wide acclaim.
LI-YOUNG LEE: But I never thought I could write it. I thought poetry was some high and mighty thing of the angels. But — and of the ancient dead in China, but later on I met Gerald Stem, of the University of Pittsburgh. I read his poetry, and I suddenly realized poetry could be written by living human beings.
BILL MOYERS: Gerald Stem is the author of six books of poetry, and teaches at the famed Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa.
GERALD STERN: Sometimes I start — just technically, musically, in the beginning of a poem, when I write lines down — and I don't know why I'm writing them down, or where it's going. And finally — it's as if the poem itself is a puzzle that will give me a secret. It will give me a secret about life itself.
BILL MOYERS [voice-over]: Two friends — two poets — joined by affection for one another and the conviction that the poet's job is to remember.
[on camera] I'm Bill Moyers. Although I left east Texas long ago, it's still home. My parents are there, and old friends, and I return so often I take for granted the freedom and ease of reaching my native soil.
Not until I meet someone who can't go home again do I try to imagine what it must be like to be an exile forever, and how vital memory then becomes to finding out and holding on to one's identity. I kept thinking of this as I listened to Li-Young Lee confront, through poetry, his brilliant, loving but dominating father, himself a stranger in a far land.
And following Gerald Stem's wild and grief-stained images into the past was like tracking a great wounded bear across the rocks and through the trees, back to its cave. For Gerry Stern, the abominations of this century have made exiles of us all, and memory is the only way home. Gerald Stem and Li-Young Lee.
LI-YOUNG LEE: There's a place in Chicago, great place, where you can get noodles, and this barbecued meat, and it's a Chinese delicacy. It's wonderful, it's greasy — Gerry Stem and I ate there once. And on a good day, you go in there, and there are Cambodians and Vietnamese and Africans and black Americans and Native Americans — it's like heaven, you know. I think — I was in there one day and I thought, heaven would be like this. Jesus or Joshua or Lao Tzu or whoever it is would walk through, and you know, he'd say, "Hello, hello," you know. "Excuse the grease," you know. 'Cause it's very greasy, you know. "Excuse the grease," you know. You know, "Excuse our construction." I mean, it would be like — it'd be like a Presbyterian nightmare, you know.
I just defined heaven, you know, a Presbyterian's nightmare. Uh. Yeah. I'm kidding. My father was a Presbyterian minister. I'm — you don't know it, but I'm arguing with him up here. It's — I have nothing against Presbyterians. Poets are endlessly arguing with their — with the dead.
BILL MOYERS [voice-over]: Li-Young Lee lives in Chicago, but his thoughts return often to the China of his family's origin. His grandfather was the first president of the Republic of China. His father was a Chinese scholar, the personal physician to Mao Tse-tung and a political prisoner in Indonesia. After a harrowing escape and years of exodus, the family made their way to America.
LI-YOUNG LEE: My father was a political fugitive, and we traveled throughout Indochina and southeast Asia. We were changing our names, we were always out of money, we were always hiding and this and that, and I blamed it on my parents. I kept wondering, like, why can't we have a normal life, you know.
But through it all my father was reading to us from the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. And so I came to really love that group of books, especially the book of Exodus, because the wanderings of the children of Israel had, you know, I felt as if those were stories about us. It is a book about the importance of history, the importance of memory. "To remember" occurs, I think, in the Old Testament, "remember," that injunction, occurs over 100 times. "Thou shalt not kill" occurs only once, okay? So that — to remember is very important. I don't know what that means, except that it's very important. This poem is called "Mnemonic." A mnemonic is a mental strategy used to remember things.
[reading at Glassboro State College] "Mnemonic."
"I was tired. So I lay down.
My lids grew heavy. So I slept.
Slender memory, stay with me.
I was cold once. So my father took off his blue sweater.
He wrapped me in it, and I never gave it back.
It is the sweater he wore to America,
this one, which I've grown into, whose sleeves are too long,
whose elbows have thinned, who outlives its rightful owner.
Flamboyant blue in daylight, poor blue by daylight,
it is black in the folds.
A serious man who devised complex systems of numbers and
to aid him in remembering, a man who forgot nothing, my father
would be ashamed of me.
Not because I'm forgetful,
but because there is no order
to my memory, a heap
of details, uncatalogued, illogical.
God was lonely. So he made me.
My father loved me. So he spanked me.
It hurt him to do so. lie did it daily.
The earth is flat. Those who fall off don't return.
The earth is round. All things reveal themselves to men only
I won't last. Memory is sweet.
Even when it's painful, memory is sweet.
Once, I was cold. So my father took off his blue sweater."
Early on, my father impressed upon his children the importance of the memory. He loved mnemonic devices, you know, strategies to remember things, and he was always reading books about how to strengthen your memory. And a book that he loved most was an obscure text called The Ad Horrendum. Thank God I never read it. It's written in Latin or something. He would — he understood Hebrew, Latin, Greek, whatever. And in this text this is the way he told it to me, I never read that — one of the tricks that you can use to better your memory, for instance, if you need to remember a formula in math or something, you would walk into a room, a favorite room. Okay, you memorize the interior of the room, and then you emblazon in your memory, in the image of the room in your head, parts of the formula, so that all you have to do is recall the room, and then supposedly, the parts of the formula will come back to you. It never works for me, you know. You know, he could probably stand here and like, look at your faces and get your names and get maybe 50 percent of you correctly matched, and he had a wonderful memory, but I could never do that, you know, and he's always backhanding me. But this poem is called "This Room and Everything In It." It's about memory, it's about my own failures of memory. It's a love poem for my wife, who's not here today.
"This Room and Everything In It"
"Lie still now
while I prepare for my future,
certain hard days ahead,
when I'll need what I know so clearly this moment.
I am making use
of the one thing learned
of all the things my father tried to teach me:
the art of memory.
I'm letting this room
and everything in it
stand for my ideas about love
and love's difficulties.
I'll let your love-cries,
those spacious notes
of a moment ago,
stand for distance.
of spice and a wound,
I'll let stand for mystery.
Your sunken belly
is the daily cup
of milk I drank
as a boy before morning prayer.
The sun on the face
of the wall
is God, the face
I can't see, my soul,
and so on, each thing
standing for a separate idea,
and those ideas forming the constellation
of my greater idea.
and one day,
when I need to tell myself something intelligent
I'll close my eyes
and recall this room and everything in it:
My body is estrangement.
This desire, perfection.
Your closed eyes are
my extinction. Now
I've forgotten my
idea. The book
on the windowsill, riffled by wind…
the even-numbered pages are
the past, the odd
-numbered pages, the future.
The sun is
God, your body is milk…
your cries are song, my body's not me…
no good…my idea
has evaporated…your hair is time, your thighs are song…
it had something to do
with death…it had something
to do with love.
LI-YOUNG LEE: In my household, my father read to us constantly from the King James Bible, and he recited — he had a classical Chinese education, which meant he memorized 300 poems from the T'ang Dynasty, and he would recite them to us. And he would make us recite back. And of course, my memory was so bad, I could never do very well. But I learned to love poetry. And I remember hearing him read from the pulpit, from Psalms and, you know, Proverbs. I would think, "God, that's incredible." And that's power.
BILL MOYERS: Do you find yourself now writing poems to try to move him, to try to persuade him, to try to —
LI-YOUNG LEE: Yeah. I'm afraid to say it to you, at this age, I'm still my father's son, I still do things to impress him, to move him. He was for me a huge character. He made it obvious, early on, that he was the template by which all his sons, and his daughter, were to measure our lives by. And he made that obvious to us. He was always setting himself up as a goal for us. He wasn't modest about that. He always impressed upon us that we were supposed to speak seven languages like him. I only speak two, you know, it was just Mandarin Chinese and English. I — he always told us we should be able to translate Kierkegaard, we should be able to translate from Psalms.
A few years ago I actually thought that I was going to study Hebrew and translate the Psalms, and then I realized that was merely a quarrel with — I was still having with my dead father. Yeah. So he was a huge figure.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever feel devastated by him, as some sons do by a strong father?
LI-YOUNG LEE: No. You know, that's the one thing. My mother said to me one time that pointed to me and said, "You are the stone on which your father's patience broke.'' So I realized that she was talking about a great deal of strength that I got from both my mother and father.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever argue with him when he was alive?
LI-YOUNG LEE: When he was alive, I never argued with him until the last year of our lives together, before he died. I think I was moving away from home. I was away from home a lot, and it suddenly dawned on me that average Americans don't live the way we were living, you know, in constant subjugation and fear and awe. And there was a lot of love and tenderness between us, but I would characterize our relationship as awe. I mean, for instance, it was obvious to me at some point, after he died, that for years I wasn't praying to a god, I was praying to him.
I seemed to have two fathers. One was intensely angry, powerful, physically powerful. He used to do this trick. He would take a block of pine. Then he would take a 16-penny nail, he would wrap a piece of cloth on the head of the nail, and he would hold it between his fingers, like this, the nail sticking out He would take the pine like this, and he would say, "Watch, now," and he would drive the nail into the block, and he'd pull it out. And he'd say, "Now, touch that." And it'd be hot from the friction, you know. And I remember that, the sound of that nail going in and just squeaking out. It sounded like it was streaming out of that wood, and he would say, "Touch that."
And we got into an argument once. He was quite ill at the time, and he was lying in bed, and there I was, this brash young man, you know, arguing with this sick father. And he said, "Go get me a block of wood and a nail," you know. So I went and got it, and l thought, "Jeez," you know. So he drove the thing in, and he gave it to me. He goes, "When you can pull that out, you come and talk to me." Okay? And I thought — it's funny. He was a man of supreme intellectual gifts, and this is what I had reduced him to, you know — driving — I mean, like, you know, we were speaking in grunts, like "Yeah, you do that." But then he was an infinitely tender, just extremely tender man. I remember, you know, moments, him combing my mother's hair, and just acts of tenderness. I think in this poem that l try to reconcile the two. Seems like the two fathers l had. It's called
To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he'd removed
the iron sliver I thought I'd die from.
I can't remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.
Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy's palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife's right hand.
Look at how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
"Metal that will bury me,"
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
"Death visited here!"
I did what a child does
when he's given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
LI-YOUNG LEE: I wrote it because I — both our — I was with my wife in a hotel one day, and I woke up, and I heard her sobbing. And I looked for her, and she was in the bathroom. She was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, and she was sobbing and holding her hand. And I noticed that she — her hand was bleeding, and then I looked and there was a splinter under her thumbnail. And now, my father was dead at the time, and when I bent down to remove the splinter, I realized that I had learned that tenderness from my father.
BILL MOYERS: You said somewhere that you had really discovered most about your father when you opened his Bible after his death.
LI-YOUNG LEE: Yeah. I inherited all his books, and I opened his Bible one day, and began reading it, and also reading the marginalia, all the things he had written in the margins of the book. It was like — it — I was experiencing his mind at work. And I realized he was — it was a fierce mind, he was questioning those things. I mean, he taught us, when he was teaching us, he was so sure. He never questioned anything. Everything came out of his mouth — everything was spit out in these hard pithy statements. And then when I opened his Bible I realized there were questions, and there were underlinings, and references to other books. So I realized here was a mind that was struggling to come to terms with his own belief.
And it really gave me another dimension. I grasped another dimension about him. And I also realized that basically, I didn't know him. And it was both of our faults. He put up a huge front, a front of a man who would not be questioned. He would not be — he would always be right, he would always be sure. And I suppose that comes from his experience of imprisonment and wandering. He wanted his children to have faith and belief in him. He didn't want us to be afraid. So he had to keep up that front. But, by the same token, it didn't make me ever feel I had a human being for a father, you know. He was always right next to God. You know, every day we were told, "Ah, you have to be quiet." There was an hour each day where we had to be very quiet, because he was praying, in his study. And I remember thinking, "Jeez, he's in there convening with this being who's like no being that I know," you know. And for an hour we had to observe this silence, we had to tiptoe around him. That's the way it was in our house.
BILL MOYERS: There's so much tenderness that comes through in your poems about him.
LI-YOUNG LEE: Oh, yeah, he's an infinitely tender man.
BILL MOYERS: That's interesting, because there's a moment in one of your poems when I catch a sense of at least possible sensuality and eroticism in your father. Maybe I'm wrong, but it's the poem "Early in the Morning" —
LI-YOUNG LEE: Ah, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: — and the relationship between your mother and your father.
LI-YOUNG LEE: Right.
BILL MOYERS:: Would you read that?
LI-YOUNG LEE: Ah, sure. "Early in the Morning."
While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligraphers' ink.
She sits at the foot of the bed.
My father watches, listens for
the music of comb
My mother combs,
pulls her hair back
tight, rolls it
around two fingers, pins it
in a bun to the back of her head.
For half a hundred years she has done this.
My father likes to see it like this.
He says it is kempt.
But I know
it is because of the way
my mother's hair falls
when he pulls the pins out.
Easily, like the curtains
when they untie them in the evening.
BILL MOYERS: Have you come to a moment when you can let go of your father as a subject?
LI-YOUNG LEE: I don't think I've settled that old quarrel, but I think, for the good of my own writing, I have had to force myself to look beyond him.
BILL MOYERS: What about your children?
LI-YOUNG LEE: It hasn't been until recently — till they're older, that I begin writing poems about them.
BILL MOYERS: What will you tell them about their ancestral voices? They'll be thoroughly American.
LI-YOUNG LEE: Yeah. They're growing up in a household where both Chinese and English are spoken. At this point they only speak English, but they understand Chinese. They walk into a room and there's Chinese opera going on, and they'll sit down and they'll watch these crazy antics on, you know, on the television. So they're already growing up dislocated, I think, because they walk into the world and they — the oldest one is beginning to ask me, he said, "I'm Chinese, right?" I said, "Yeah, you're half Chinese." He said, "And I'm half-regular." So, you know, there's Chinese and regular. So he's already crazy with this stuff. My oldest son loves to hear stories. He said to me, "Father, tell me the Sukarno story," you know. My father was a political prisoner under Sukarno, so I make up these stories and Sukarno, of course, is the evil guy, and my father is the hero, and — because I've run out of all the princes and dark woods stories. So I make up these stories about Sukarno, so my son says, "Yeah, tell me the Sukarno stories," you know. And I run out of stories. And that's what this poem is about.
"Sad is the man who is asked for a story
and can't come up with one.
His five-year-old son waits in his lap.
'Not the same story, Baba. A new one.'
The man rubs his chin, scratches his ear.
In a room full of books in a world
of stories, he can recall
not one, and soon, he thinks, the boy
will give up on his father.
Already the man lives far ahead, he sees
the day this boy will go. 'Don't go!
Hear the alligator story! The angel story once more!
You love the spider story. You laugh at the spider.
Let me tell it!'
But the boy is packing his shirts,
he is looking for his keys. 'Are you a god,'
the man screams, 'that I sit mute before you?
Am I a god that I should never disappoint?'
But the boy is here. 'Please, Baba, a story?'
It is an emotional rather than logical equation,
an earthly rather than heavenly one,
which posits that a boy's supplications
and a father's love add up to silence."
BILL MOYERS: Your father, do you think he would accept you as a poet? Would he be satisfied with your ambition to write? Or would he say, "No, you've got to be more than that, Li-Young"?
LI-YOUNG LEE: I don't know. I think that's my father. You know, there's the answer to your question. You know, nothing I do is going to be good enough for him, so everything I write I hate a week later.
BILL MOYERS: I find that hard to understand.
LI-YOUNG LEE: Yeah, I — even my, you know, my poet friends tell me, "Oh, yeah, I hate the poems in my first book, too, but I like the poems I'm writing now." I hate the poems I'm working on, you know. As I'm writing them, I'm realizing, "This is not Ecclesiastes, this is not the "Song of Songs," you know. But I realize I have a duty to finish those poems, and I want to shape them, in that they're going to help me get to the next poem.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, what's the duty? Why do it?
LI-YOUNG LEE: What it is, it's a love of a state of being. I think when a person is in deep prayer, all of that being's attention is focused on God. When a person is in love, all of that being's attention is focused on a lover. I think in writing poetry, all of the being's attention is focused on some inner voice. I don't mean to sound mystical, but it really is a voice. And all of the attention is turned toward that voice. And that's such an exhilarating state to be in.
LI-YOUNG LEE: The last poem is called "Eating Together."
"In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one."
BILL MOYERS: Gerald Stem, like Li-Young Lee, is a poet of memory. Drawing on his Jewish heritage, he brings forth a remarkable feeling for life from neglected places and the earth's vulnerable creatures.
GERALD STERN: You're not always a Jew, or a black, or a Native American, or Japanese, or Chinese, or Slovenian, when you write your poems. Sometimes you're writing about an itchy back, or a headache, or fear of death. All people fear death. But sometimes you put on that mantle, and you're very Jewish, and you're very Chinese, or whatever. Particularly are you very whatever. And in this poem I was very whatever. It's a poem called "Grapefruit," and I'm reading because I have to do some food poem, because my confréres and conseilleurs are all reading food poems. And it is a poem which is a brucha. A brucha is a Hebrew word, it means a blessing. You say it before a meal. In the Hebrew it is always a certain form. It goes [in Hebrew] Baruch Atah Adonai Elohanu Melech ha'Olom, and then — which means, "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God," and then the — whatever you're blessing. [In Hebrew] ha'Motze Lechem min Ha' Aretz. "Who brings forth bread, matzah, from the earth.''
Now, this poem I do in English, so rest comfortably. And what I'm blessing, finally, is a weed. And a female weed, I just discovered. And I hope the rabbis will forgive me for this, wherever they are.
"I'm eating breakfast even if it means standing
in front of the sink and tearing at the grapefruit,
even if I'm leaning over to keep the juices
away from my chest and stomach and even if a spider
is hanging from my ear and a wild flea
is crawling down my leg. My window is wavy
and dirty. There is a wavy tree outside
with pitiful leaves in front of the rusty fence
and there is a patch of useless rhubarb, the leaves
bent over, the stalks too large and bitter for eating,
and there is some lettuce and spinach too old for picking
beside the rhubarb. This is the way the saints
ate, only they dug for thistles, the feel
of thorns in the throat it was a blessing, my pity
it knows no bounds. There is a thin tomato plant
inside a rolled-up piece of wire, the worms
are already there, the birds are bored. In time
I'll stand beside the rolled-up fence with tears
of gratitude in my eyes. I'II hold a puny
pinched tomato in my open hand,
I'll hold it to my lips. Blessed art Thou,
King of tomatoes, King of grapefruit. The thistle
must have juices, there must be a trick. I hate
to say it but I'm thinking if there is a saint
in our time what will he be, and what will he eat?
I hated rhubarb, all that stringy sweetness —
a fake applesauce — I hated spinach,
always with egg and vinegar, I hated
oranges when they were quartered, that was the signal
for castor oil — aside from the peeled navel
I love the Florida cut in two. I bend
my head forward, my chin is in the air,
I hold my right hand off to the side, the pinkie
is waving; I am back again at the sink;
oh loneliness, I stand at the sink, my garden
is dry and blooming, I love my lettuce, I love
my cornflowers, the sun is doing it all,
the sun and a little dirt and a little water.
I lie on the ground out there, there is one yard
between the house and the tree; I am more calm there
looking back at this window, looking up
a little at the sky, a blue passageway
with smears of white — and grey — bird crossing
from berm to berm, from ditch to ditch, another one,
a wild highway, a wild skyway, a flock
of little ones to make me feel gay, they fly
down the thruway, I move my eyes back and forth
to see them appear and disappear, I stretch
my neck, a kind of exercise. Ah sky,
my breakfast is over, my lunch is over, the wind
has stopped, it is the hour of deepest thought.
Now I brood, I grimace, how quickly the day goes,
how full it is of sunshine, and wind, how many
smells there are, how gorgeous is the distant
sound of dogs, and engines — Blessed art Thou,
Lord of the falling leaf, Lord of the rhubarb,
Lord of the roving cat, Lord of the cloud.
Blessed art Thou oh grapefruit King of the universe,
Blessed art Thou my sink, oh Blessed art Thou
Thou milkweed Queen of the sky, burster of seeds,
Who bringeth forth juice from the earth.
BILL MOYERS: What was it some critic said of you, that you write about the darkest drama in the midst of tricycles and kittens.
GERALD STERN: Yeah. The tricycle and the kitten is there. I mean, that's the life I lead, and I'm always tripping over tricycles and kittens, and what, you know. I lead a disconnected, a scattered life. I mean, I'm here, I'm there, and there seems always to be kittens and tricycles there.
I dream of a pure place, you understand, like everybody else — an unencumbered study with every book in its place, and I could press a button and up comes this poem or that poem, or this story. It never has happened. And I — now I'm content that it never will happen. In my life. For me. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: But you keep your eyes open. You see things I would never think of as becoming poems. Read me this one, "Cow Worship."
GERALD STERN: "Cow Worship." Oh, yeah. I love cows.
"I love the cows best when they were a few feet away
from my dining-room window and my pine floor,
when they reach in to kiss me with their wet
mouths and their white noses.
I love them when they walk over the garbage cans
and across the cellar doors,
over the sidewalk and through the metal chairs
and the birdseed.
—Let me reach out through the thin curtains
and feel the warm air of May.
It is the temperature of the whole galaxy,
all the bright clouds, and clusters,
beasts and heroes,
glittering singers and isolated thinkers
I was living in Pennsylvania, and I would literally go from my house with my wife, we'd drive up about three or four miles away, I'd go to pet the cow. That's what I did in the evenings.
BILL MOYERS: Pet the cow?
GERALD STERN: To me that was the sweetest thing in the world. Sweetest thing.
BILL MOYERS: Such unthreatening creatures occupy your poems, like cows, fleas — although some people wouldn't think that fleas are —
GERALD STERN: Mosquitoes.
BILL MOYERS: — mosquitoes. Moles. Not —
GERALD STERN: Opossums.
BILL MOYERS: — yeah.
GERALD STERN: Dogs who are not in a threatening place. I never thought of it that way, Bill, and it's absolutely accurate. They are not wolves, not that I don't love wolves. We all adore and are mystified by wolves. They're not tigers, hyenas. Eagles, no eagles.
BILL MOYERS: But they're not creatures that automobile companies are likely to name new styles after.
GERALD STERN: The Opossum! They should, though. Can you see — you know, Chrysler coming out with the Opossum, you know. [laughing]
BILL MOYERS: Have you ever thought about why that is so?
GERALD STERN: They're creatures. And they're creatures that are somewhat helpless. They're at the mercy of other people. Dead deer, opossums, ground — they're at the mercy of other people. Maybe I identify with them. Maybe I'm — I have a dual role. Partly I'm like them, so that I am, as a human being, as a Jew, as for many years of — you know, economically on the outside. At someone else's mercy. Is that why we have pets, to show that we do have kindness, or mercy, or even the little justice in us?
BILL MOYERS: It's sometimes easier to love a pet than it is to love a human being.
GERALD STERN: It sure is, it sure is. No question. Many of us remember the stiff Englishman who loves his pet or, even the German, the Nazi who loved animals, but didn't pay a lot of attention of the right sort to humans.
This is a poem called "Burying an Animal on the Way to New York.''
"Don't flinch when you come across a dead animal lying on the road;
you are being shown the secret of life.
Drive slowly over the brown flesh;
you are helping to bury it.
If you are the last mourner there will be no caress
at all from the crushed limbs
and you will have to slide over the dark spot imagining
the first suffering all by yourself
Shreds of spirit and little ghost fragments will be spread out
for two miles above the white highway.
Slow down with your radio off and your window open
to hear the twittering as you go by."
I say, "slow down with your radio off and your window open," and nobody drives, really, in the summertime, with his window open anymore, because we all have air conditioning, and I'm one of the few monsters of the past [laughing] that refuses — I mean, I know if I lived in Arizona or Texas, I'd have to give up. But the thing is to be again, still in the midst of all this noise, and all this energy, and all this civility, and all this anger, to stop for a minute. To stop. Turn your radio off, which is kind of an archaic answer, you tum your television off. Turn everything off and stop for a minute, to hear the twittering as you go by. And that's — again, in every religion, in every work of art, you've got to stop to listen, you've got to stop to listen.
BILL MOYERS: To a dead animal, in this case.
GERALD STERN: In this case, to a dead animal. Sometimes, of course, I — as I disguise them, so to speak, as animals, but they're people I'm talking about.
"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 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 shilling, 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 —
you have taught me, oh distant and brilliant and lonely."
Let me read a happy poem about an animal. It's a short poem. At least when I wrote it, I thought it was happy. It was a cold winter and I was living in — near — in Raubsville, Pennsylvania, along the Delaware River, and my wife used to always put a. ball of fat out in the black birch tree to — with a little poison in it, to attract the birds. And I wrote this poem about that, sort of. It was really, though, about a Jew who lived underground, as most Jews do, or used to. It's the mole. The mole is the mole is our — the mole is our sign, at least, it's my sign. Some people have gray wolves, you know. Mine is a blind mole, I guess.
I called my children up and I said, "I've written a happy poem." And I made them sit down and listen to this poem, and I will share it with you now.
There's a bird pecking at the fat;
there's a dead tree covered with snow;
there's a truck dropping cinders on the slippery highway.
There's life in my backyard —
black wings beating on the branches,
greedy eyes watching,
mouths screaming and fighting over the greasy ball.
There's a mole singing hallelujah.
Close the rotten doors!
Let everyone go blind!
Let everyone be buried in his own litter."
I have to read a poem about Camp Kilmer. I was living near there once, and my wife came rushing in and said, "I've found a wonderful place for you. It's your site, it's a ruined, burned-out barrack in Camp Kilmer." And of course, you know, you cannot legislate a poem for another being. But she did that for me. So for her I read this poem. It's called "On the Far Edge of Kilmer."
"I'm sitting again on the steps of the burned out barrack.
I come here, like Proust or Adam Kadmon, every night to watch the sun leave.
I like the broken cinder blocks and the bicycle tires.
I like the exposed fuse system.
I like the color the char takes in the clear light.
I climb over everything and stop before every grotesque relic.
I walk through the tar paper and glass.
I lean against the lilacs.
In my left hand is a bottle of Tango.
In my right hand are the old weeds and power lines.
I am watching the glory go down.
I am taking the thing seriously.
I am standing between the wall and the white sky.
I am holding open the burnt door."
BILL MOYERS: There you were in the poem, "Kilmer" —
GERALD STERN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: — at the old barracks, before that blackened door. Why does that ruin appeal to you?
GERALD STERN: I don't altogether know the answer, and if I did I would probably stop writing. But I'm attracted to the pockets, to the secret places, to the places of escape, to the places that are ignored. Somehow ruins give me delight, in a crazy way. As long as —maybe it's a way of restoring. Maybe it's an act of restoration.
BILL MOYERS: Well, take the poem —
GERALD STERN: Or an act of finding the holiness in the thing that existed.
BILL MOYERS: — holiness?
GERALD STERN: The holiness, the soul of the thing. I'm sure that barracks has been cleaned up and repaired, and there's something else there. For a moment, maybe, it became its true self.
BILL MOYERS: True self?
GERALD STERN: Maybe that's what that thing really was, maybe that's what our fancy buildings really are, underneath, are these two by fours and, you know, plas — and the wallboard, or the plaster, and cleaned up a little bit, a skin put on it, for show. For civilization. Maybe it's a question of the relationship of civilization with the other, uncivilization. Maybe there was a secret joy also in find — in countering the destruction, a kind of brotherhood of destruction, and saying this is what it really is, this is what all things finally come to. I'm alive. It's a victory to be there and to describe it. It's a victory to have gone through it and to survive. And there's a certain narrative — a certain sadness in seeing the narrative of a thing from beginning to end, and just to describe its existence.
BILL MOYERS: You're alive, but you never stop reminding us, in one way or the other, of people who are not, those who have suffered and perished in the past. That's what I take from your poem, "Behaving Like a Jew."
GERALD STERN: I wrote this poem living in Easton, Pennsylvania. I remember the occasion for the poem. I was driving my wife to the hospital in Easton for a very minor operation and while I was there I was look — there were the greasy Reader's Digests, and I put gloves on, picked up one of them and started to read an article by Charles Lindbergh, who was and wasn't my hero.
He was my hero because of his cat, and his flight to Europe, and he wasn't my hero because he listened very seriously to Fat Man Goering, Madman Hitler. And — well, I could go on explaining the poem, but I see it will get us nowhere, so let me just read it to you. It's called "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 bloodstained
bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of the grilles,
the slimy highways, the heavy birds
refusing to move;
I am sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything,
that joy in death, that philosophical
understanding of carnage, that
concentration of the species.
— Iam going to be unappeased at the opossum's death.
I am going to behave like a Jew
and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,
and pull him off the road.
I am not going to stand in a wet ditch
with the Toyotas and the Chevies passing over me
at sixty 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 belly and his curved fingers
and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you call that poem "On Behaving Like a Jew"?
GERALD STERN: I was moved by the opossum itself, and as I looked at his body with the bloated stomach and the hairy face, somehow, that opossum became a representative Jew. And I don't remember if I gave it the title later, if I didn't start writing that poem and didn't realize till, you know, I was halfway through, or most of the way through, that it was the Jewish experience I was writing about, and they responded to it, certainly.
BILL MOYERS: I thought the youngsters got it yesterday, that when you saw that possum, you saw a weak creature run over by a powerful vehicle, or killed by a willful —
GERALD STERN: Right, a machine. A machine.
BILL MOYERS: — yeah, but —
GERALD STERN: Although in this case it was a gun.
BILL MOYERS: — and here were — here were the Jews, run over by a powerful machine.
GERALD STERN: And shot by guns.
BILL MOYERS: Shot by guns.
GERALD STERN: So I — it was an act of total identifying.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean when you say, "I'm going to behave like a Jew," then?
GERALD STERN: Maybe I'm claiming something for Jews that shouldn't be claimed for them, but for all people, all good people, all thinking people, all feeling people. Maybe I'm think — maybe I'm claiming feeling for the Jew, and maybe in, you know, there are many unfeeling Jews, there are many unfeeling Gentiles. I'm sensitive about arrogating that to them, but at that point in that poem I was claiming feeling, tenderness, elegy, love. Memory, memory.
This is a poem about Pittsburgh, and ancestral memories thereof. In the poem — because it's really a poem about my mother and father, dancing and laughing — in the poem my father jumps around the room making, forgive me for this, farting sounds in a kind of Ukrainian dance. And I could imitate his Ukrainian. I will. It went something like this [singing, pumping his arm]. And he'd make these fantastic noises. The poem is called
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 MelIons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing — in Poland and Germany —
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.
BILL MOYERS: At the end of the dancing, you say, "As if we could never stop in 1945, in Pittsburgh, beautiful, filthy Pittsburgh" —
GERALD STERN: "Beautiful, filthy Pittsburgh."
BILL MOYERS: — "home of the evil Mellons, five thousand miles away from the other dancing, in Poland and Germany." What was the other dancing?
GERALD STERN: The concentration camps, the destruction of the Jews.
BILL MOYERS: The Hasidim, Jews dancing on those open graves?
GERALD STERN: Yeah, but — well, it's a gory word there. Because in part the dancing was as Jews dancing in the, you know, forgive me, in the showers and then, at the end of gallows, and as they were shot and they were tortured. That's a kind of hideous dancing, a Hieronymus Bosch dancing. It also was a victorious dancing, as you indicate, coming itself from a Jewish and not just a Jewish tradition.
And then, of course, in the last line I take the tum I do. I had no idea, when I wrote that poem, that I was doing — and writing about anything else but my father playing his instrument, and us — three of us, dancing around our little apartment in Pittsburgh. I didn't know it was going to take that tum. That was a gift, a terrible gift, a sad gift, a good gift that was given me when I wrote, and suddenly that happened.
BILL MOYERS: "Oh wild God," you end. "Oh God of mercy."
GERALD STERN: "Oh God of mercy, oh wild God."
BILL MOYERS: "Oh wild God."
GERALD STERN: And — well, I call him the God of mercy, and there's irony there, even, because, well, what mercy was shown? I call him "wild God," and it's a way of almost forgiving him, because he's wild, because he's on another mission, because he wasn't paying enough attention. He was with — because he said, "I'll be back in a minute, because I've got to do this wonderful thing, I'm creating a universe over here." He's wild and he's unconnected, and he didn't pay enough attention and that horrible thing happened. I was being ironic and not ironic when I called him a God of Mercy, because he is a god of mercy, and I was being ironic, but mostly praiseworthy, is that — praising when I called him, "Oh wild God." It was an act of forgiveness. I didn't realize till you asked me.
My poetry is a kind of religion for me, it really is. It's a way of seeking redemption. Not so much for myself, and not for others; maybe some — maybe more for myself. But just on the page. It is, finally, that's what it's about. A way of understanding things so that they can — so that things can be reconciled, explained, justified, redeemed. I guess that's what it's about for me. So I guess it's serious business.
I wrote a poem about a tree called "The Nettle Tree," which I'd like to read to you, and after I didn't realize this when I wrote the poem, and I know this'll be hard for you to believe, but when I got done writing the poem I realized there was no such tree as a nettle tree. There is no nettle tree. Or there isn't any nettle tree. Both are true.
Mine was the nettle tree, the nettle tree.
It grew beside the garage and on the river
And I protected it from all destroyers.
I loved the hanging branches and the trunk
that grew like a pole. I loved the little crown
that waves like a feather. I sat for hours watching
the birds come in to eat the berries. I read
my Homer there — I wanted to stay forever
sleeping and dreaming. I put my head on the trunk
to hear my sounds. It was my connection for years,
half hanging in the wind — half leaning, half standing.
It was my only link. It was my luxury.