“Stern” by Al Maginnes

Al Maginnes


The first poem I heard him read—this was
on Bill Moyers’ TV show about poetry—was “The Dancing”
about a family’s unplanned twirl of ecstasy in the last year
of World War II, the three of them, young Stern
and his parents, not so young but younger, I’d bet, than I am
writing this, all dancing, the father using hand and armpit
to squeeze out farting sounds, the three of them
safe from and irreducibly caught in the wheel
of history. From here, the cities of the ’40s seem
like benevolent wildernesses that now exist only in myth
where men in loose clothes stroll the boulevards, wearing
hats and ties and women wear pencil skirts, everyone
smoking. Jazz rolled from some windows, symphonies
shrouded darker windows. Bars were filled with shadows,
free of TV screens. Doors stood open because no one had
air conditioning yet. I taught Stern’s poem for a few semesters
until two students, who enrolled thinking it would be
the easy A it was before I began teaching there, demonstrated
their arm fart technique for the class. This was at a school
for rich fuckups, many simply waiting for the trust fund
to begin paying off like a slot machine. But from them,
a few emerged to love poems for at least a year. Still,
“The Dancing” never made the pirouette back into the rotation.
If you teach, you know the drill—you learn which pieces
will teach something and lean on those until they have
no more to tell you, then find a few more. Or maybe
you choose a book or two each year and stumble through,
never sure if you’ve said anything worth saying.
Twenty five years of five classes a semester, and I’ve learned
which lessons I can trust. And my taste runs counter
to my students, who are raptured by waterfalls, fields
of green frosted by Wordsworth’s daffodils
while I try to explain the blossoming joys of decay,
of alleys through poor neighborhoods, the acne
of rust on a car left abandoned on the highway.
I never punched a clock in a coal or steel mill or I would sing
a spot for them in the pantheon as well. And the pantheon,
that endless, mythical anthology, is where
we all hoped to be going when we sat in workshops,
then later in bars, basking in some small triumph or nursing
wounds we would forget. It was the fall I got divorced
when a new professor handed back my poems and suggested
I read Gerald Stern, advice I put aside with a lot of other
good suggestions. It was a few years later, after school
was done, that I heard Bill Moyers talk to Stern
and went looking for his books. I was landscaping
in the day and teaching composition at night. Somewhere
I learned that he had spent years in community colleges,
a fact that fills me with joy when there are papers
to grade and poems that want to be written. The first time
I saw Stern was at a writers’ conference as he moved
slow as a planet amid a constellation of smaller poets.
Heavy with mirth and awe, his face might have belonged
to the deli owner who rings up your reuben. Or
the ring watcher telling you that the middleweight who keeps
dropping his left will never move up the card. Better dressed,
he might have been the lawyer drafting the Talmudic passages
making it possible to leave your estate to your fat dog
and not the grandkids who never visit or call. I’m old enough
to have outlasted some of the world’s fascination
with youth. I can tell the students in my class, the Botoxed
ladies where I buy groceries that little runs
as wild as an old man’s heart. Those fires are the ones
I need to keep this pen moving across the page.
Tonight, somewhere north of me, I hope Stern is writing
a poem. When I saw him read a few years ago,
we talked about community colleges, and he signed
his book “Your fellow slave,” though it’s been years
since he was slave to any job. I left the reading,
grateful for the angels of poetry who come on
half-sprained wings to bless all that rusts and ages,
who come to us when we are wild enough to dance.

from Rattle #63, Spring 2019


Al Maginnes: “I have been writing poems with some degree of seriousness for 35 years or so. The longer I stay at this, the more I realize that I walk in the footsteps of those who come before me. This is what led me to write ‘Stern.’ I used to write poems because I believed I had something to say. Now I write them in order to discover what I have to say.”

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