American Sonnets: Poemsby Gerald Stern
Author Biography: Gerald Stern, winner of the National Book
Fifty-nine "Stern sonnets" of twenty or so lines from the 1998 National Book Award winner. This stunning collection moves from autobiography to the visionary in surges of memory and language that draw the reader from one poem to the next. "I was taken over by the writing of these poems," Stern says.
Author Biography: Gerald Stern, winner of the National Book Award for This Time, lives in Lambertville, New Jersey.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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- 6.10(w) x 8.62(h) x 0.47(d)
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By Gerald Stern
W. W. Norton & CompanyCopyright © 2002 Gerald Stern
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWinter Thirst I grew up with bituminous in my mouth and sulfur smelling like rotten eggs and I first started to cough because my lungs were like cardboard; and what we called snow was gray with black flecks that were like glue when it came to snowballs and made them hard and crusty, though we still ate the snow anyhow, and as for filth, well, start with smoke, I carried it with me I know everywhere and someone sitting beside me in New York or Paris would know where I came from, we would go in for dinner- red meat loaf or brown choucroute-and he would guess my hill, and we would talk about soot and what a dirty neck was like and how the white collar made a fine line; and I told him how we pulled heavy wagons and loaded boxcars every day from five to one A.M. and how good it was walking empty-handed to the no. 69 streetcar and how I dreamed of my bath and how the water was black and soapy then and what the void was like and how a candle instructed me. How a Word Can Breathe I don't know who said first the hardened beetle and who was in the sun and therefore divided the world in two and how we fixed the height of the oak at sixty feet or who first saw the perfect crab and counted his legs and turned him over to see the dead man's face imprintedon every one as long as you saw the two holes as eyes and paid attention to the crease that went from forehead to chin; and who remembered the butterfly bush and actually put on his shoes to see what color it was and who remembered what year the Buick was and if there was a strip in the windshield or not; and how you had to "slay a worm"-for immortality- and what it was like changing a bald tire, turning the iron with your knees, holding the jack in one of your bleeding hands, and what a "homely anguish" is and how a word can breathe and what the pink sky looked like with long streaks of lavender at the edge when you looked up from tightening the lugs and how you waited. June Since it is June already I could be back there wearing a yellow hat to confuse the blue jay or giving into the smells; and once the heat lets up I could be shivering in a T-shirt, wishing I had a wool sweater, remembering the bricks in this room and how we hated plaster yet how we painted them white and how advanced we felt when we finally had a telephone; and I could be picking phlox by pulling the low-lying roots and stop to think if there could be pomp enough with only a single four-pointed star; and I could bend down again for the chicory that sky and land conspired so much with it caught the sun for a minute, and put it over my sink, the way we brought something into the house that we could cut the dead leaves from and water, now that we had a well, now that the wind was breaking down the door and one of the old zinc pennies was standing on end and we could find the key inside the crock, now we had light. Once Once I called my former wife from one of the pay phones they used to have on the wall here to ask her where the hospital was since I was so overcome with fear walking down the empty sidewalk or into one of the stores that used to be here I couldn't tell which hill I took though I had been there maybe a half dozen times but she was merciless and full of ridicule, such was my happy marriage then, though I still tried explaining how when I walked into Woolworth's the rubber tiles rose up and I was half-blind and hung onto the glass case for balance which she interpreted as either sugar or eyeglasses; and I remember we drove to a doctor but I was better by then, my heart wasn't pounding, the blood wasn't rushing into my ears, and I expanded while paying the bill and putting my jacket on since one more time I fought off the rubber floor and caved-in sidewalk without disgracing myself. Aberdeen Proving Grounds, 1946 I have had the honor of being imprisoned, the joy of breaking stone with a sledge hammer, the pleasure of sleeping under a bare lightbulb, the grief of shitting with a guard watching, the sorrow of eating by myself, and I have felt the lightness of being released and watched the leaves change color from a speeding car, and I first read the Gospels then, a stiff and swollen paperback, the way paper was made then, and I slept peacefully, a blanket over the steel, as I recall, though I planned the same murder every night, which kept me going my thirteen working hours; and when I got home I threw my duffel bag into the river and walked to the no. 69 streetcar, and even the clothes I wore, even the shoes, even the overcoat, I stuffed into the hot incinerator and listened to the roar three stories down and watched the particles float inside the chute and read an old newspaper on top of the bundle and tested the cord and cleaned the greasy window, since I was cleaning everything. For the Bee The fence itself can't breathe, jewelweeds are choking the life out of the dirt, not one tomato plant can even survive, the crows are leaving, the worms themselves won't stay, the bricks are hot, the water in one of my buckets has disappeared, and I am trying to get a pencil out of my pocket without breaking the point though it is painful turning sideways in this heat and lifting my leg like that; and there is a half-dead bee drowning in my saucer and there is a dirty kitchen window in which I sit in front of a piece of rough slate and hold my book to the light like someone under a tree and nod with tears of mercy-for the bee I guess-and stare and frown by turns and turn my head to the tree so I can be kind and let the filtered light go in and out and wave a little because of the glass the way I do when I am facing myself in the mirror and not even ridicule the new president and not even loathe him.
Excerpted from American Sonnets by Gerald Stern Copyright © 2002 by Gerald Stern
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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