Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Driving Home from Elizabethtown," Bert Stern

"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.

by Bert Stern, from Steerage, published by and available from Ibbetson Street Press, Somerville, MA.

     Bert is Milligan Professor Emeritus at Wabash College and chief editor, retired, at Hilton Publishing. He and his wife, the poet Tam Lin Neville, co-edit a small press that publishes book by poets over sixty. He has taught at a program for folks on probation in the Boston area for the last ten years.
     His essays and poems have appeared many places. His critical study, Wallace Stevens: Art of Uncertainty, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 1965.
     Aside from all this and much more, he's a good conversationalist.

I have been waiting to post this poem when my turn came because I am truly not the least bit interested in reading descriptions of countryside, the outsides or interiors of houses or of clothing. But I found the spare use of what Bert noted outside of the car was so compelling interwoven into an intense inner dialogue that even I couldn't ignore it. 

I'm going to risk adding a long second poem because it gives an idea that my diagnosis that he's a good conversationalist is correct.

Hot Food

Back in a then so long ago there was nothing to look back to
and the long ride to Charley's farm in Ontario was an adventure,
we were happy in the car, Mother singing songs of longing
that she looked back to from when she was a child in the war,
and the long, long roads a-winding pointed to the peace
we had now, there in the car, before the new war came on,
and Daddy happy driving, getting lost to see what he could see,
though we'd all beg him to go by the map, and my sister and I happy
to see them happy so we'd sing along, oh, Keep the home fires
burning, while our hearts are yearning, for the feeling,
not knowing yet what people longed for in long wars, but free,
on the road, and though I'd sometimes get car sick my mother
would give me a lemon to suck on and then I'd be okay, back then
I'd see road signs that called out, Eat or Hot Food, and because
we'd never stop, hot food seemed to me mysterious, particular,
food that I'd never eaten but naturally yearned for.

Later, on another time, driving through the night
     to the City from Buffalo
with Gita Nonni in a four-door convertible in December
     without a heater
and only a blanket over our laps to keep us warm and singing I can't
remember what but probably the lovely songs Susanne Bloch
sang to her lute, or songs the Wobblies sang, I learned that hot food
was open turkey sandwiches with mashed potatoes and delicious
floury gravy, hold the over-cooked peas. We'd had our own war by 
then, and after that war came new hot foods, pizza, egg foo yung,
    vegetables cooked right.
But it isn't the food I am trying to get at as much as time, time that
has carried me past so many shoals and rapids, so many songs and
     tears and wrongs,
so many sweetnesses and Look!-We-have-come-throughs
to this Now, lavish with the so-much-to-look-back-to.

Poems published with permission from the author.

Melissa Shook is this week's editor on Tuesday Poem. She is a photographer, filmmaker and poet who lives in Boston, US. Visit her blog here and the links to the other Tuesday Poets are in the live blog roll in the sidebar. 


Mary McCallum said...

Yes, I'd like to have a conversation with this man. His poems rush at you off the page as if they've been flung there - the words edible and bursting. The first poem is very like it is here crossing over the Rimutakas to the Wairarapa - the moment before you drop down into the valley... Thanks Melissa.

Claire Beynon said...

There's a wonderful tumbling energy in this writing (yours and Bert's, Melissa!). I've been back here to re-read the poems several times since you posted this in the wee hours of our morning and will return again. Thank you, Melissa.

Helen Lowe said...


Thank you very much for bringing us Bert's poems. I admire his use of language, his obviously keen observational ability, but also the mix of life-loved with an elegaic quality in Hot Food.

One thing I love about this blog is that it is opening my world to so many poets I wish I knew more of. Which of course means that one thing I hate about this blog is that it is opening my world to so many poets I wish I knew more of. Because that always beings me to: so many wonderful poems, so little time.

Zachary Bos said...

It might well be a human universal, the pleasure of driving homeward while a low-lying sun comes through the windows of the car and fills it with its light. I wrote about it myself -- http://thewonderreflex.blogspot.com/2010/09/poem-driving-up-vermont.html -- and I'm sure we are not the only two. A very good post, thanks for which to Melissa Shook.