Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Thoughts arising from "Steerage," by Bert Stern

I am slowly reading Bert Stern's book of poems and thinking. 

How can I get past --
                                  ....        "My mother
    who wanted not to be born grew up
    married, was my mother, suffered.
    All suffered to bring me here to this room
    where I write, bigger than the house
    my mother was born in."

That is from "Lotty is Born" in Part 1: Changing Places

The implicit weight of all that suffering and sacrifice, or the gift of family and birth, to the man writing that stanza, is, for me, loaded with images of steerage that I've seen, with what I've read about these struggles to start a new life after sacrificing the old one, being driven from the old one, the hopes embedded. But Bert's words not only convey push me toward thinking about those painful historical facts,

they make me think about why I'm here in this room, writing, why I feel cut off from that past and family while he carries them with him.

I can only imagine that my German grandmother, a dressmaker from a family of teachers, pushed her meek husband, a sculptor of religious statuary, to immigrant here in the late 1900's because she thought she could advance herself. Though they had five children, the family story was always about Antonia convincing bankers, in spite of her garbled English, to lend her money so that she could buy rooming houses in Chicago.     Money. Advancement.

Though somewhere in the attic I have stored pages of information about my father's forebear's meanderings from one state to another, farmers, perhaps tradesmen, I can only imagine that they immigrated here, much earlier, because of opportunity. But the only story from that side of the family that influences me is that he got his PdD in math at a young age, without much effort.   Education.

I assume that I was an accident, not an unhappy one, after twelve years of my parent's marriage. My mother already had a sixteen-year-old son. And then she died, when I was twelve.   Disconnection.

Perhaps one of Bert's primary goals was to convey the sorrow, the hope, of his mother's hard birth, her voyage, strength of character and desire for family. But I thank him for  an uncomfortable prod into thinking about who I'm carrying 

and I thank him for "Driving Home from Elizabethtown"

"At the top of Spruce Hill,
just before the highway
plunges into the valley,
the wide sweep of mountains
gathers me in to its shadow
and silence, holds me,
until I am ready to fall
with the turnings of poplar
and oak. Through the windshield,
even the thin rain that takes on
gold light from the sun in its falling
is fuel for the burning."

(I hope he won't mind my reproducing this...) but this piece got past my aversion to descriptive work, any descriptive words in poems, paragraphs in stories, in articles. I skip over description, not caring the least bit about wide sweeps of mountains or poplars or gold light. It's all too tedious, as far as I'm concerned, but I came across this poem and stopped.  It surprised me.... and haunted me. And I am glad for it.

The irony is that when Bert generously gave me his book, he inscribed something which I hadn't read until long after I'd started reading the poems and come across his poplars and gold. He had quoted from this poem. Odd, I thought, that I had come upon it by myself, in spite of my innate resistance.      


  1. Melissa-- nice reflective piece--glad the book got you thinking Best--Doug Holder

    * Can I put this on his blog?

  2. Doug, whatever you want to do with it...
    I'll try to write more about what the book makes me think, hoping Bert doesn't mind the use of his poem....