This Is It

By Gerald Stern b. 1925 Gerald Stern
It is my emotions that early me through Lambertville, New Jersey,   
sheer feeling—and an obscure detour—that brings me to a coffee shop   
called “This Is It” and a small New Jersey clapboard   
with a charming fake sign announcing it to be
the first condemned building in the United States   
and an old obese collie sitting on the cement steps
of the front porch begging forgiveness with his red eyes.   
I talk to the coughing lady for five minutes,
admire her sign, her antique flag, her dog,
and share her grief over the loss of the house next door,   
boarded up forever, tied up in estates,
surrounded by grass, doomed to an early fire.

Everyone is into my myth! The whole countryside   
is studying weeds, collecting sadness, dreaming
of odd connections and no place more than Lambertville   
will do for ghosts to go through your body
or people to live out their lives with a blurred vision.   
The old woman is still talking. She tells me
about her youth, she tells me about her mother’s ganglia   
and how the doctor slammed a heavy Bible down   
on her watery wrist, scattering spoons and bread crumbs   
and turning over little tin containers
of alyssum and snapdragon. She tells me about the   
curved green glass that is gone forever. She tells me   
about her dog and its monotonous existence.

Ah, but for sadness there are very few towns like Lambertville.   
It drips with grief, it almost sags from the weight.
I know Frackville, Pa., and Sandusky, Ohio,
and I know coal chutes, empty stores and rusty rivers   
but Lambertville is special, it is a wooden stage set,
a dream-ridden carcass where people live out serious lives
with other people’s secrets, trying to touch with their hands   
and eat with their cold forks, and open houses with their keys;
and sometimes, on a damp Sunday, they leave the papers on the front porch   
to walk down York Street or Buttonwood Street   
past abandoned factories and wooden garages,   
past the cannon with balls and the new band shell,   
past the downtown churches and the antique shops,   
and even across the metal plates on the Delaware River   
to stinking New Hope, where all their deep longing   
is reduced to an hour and a half of greedy buying.

I crawl across the street to have my coffee at the low counter,
to listen to the noise of the saws drifting through the open window
and to study the strange spirit of this tar paper café   
stuck on a residential street three or four blocks
from Main and Bridge where except for the sudden windfall   
of the looping detour it would be relegated forever   
to the quiet company of three or four close friends   
and the unexpected attention of a bored crossing guard   
or exhausted meter man or truck driver.
I listen to the plans of the three teen-age businessmen   
about to make their fortune in this rotting shack   
and walk—periodically—past the stainless steel sink   
to take my piss in the misplaced men’s room.   
I watch the bright happy girls organize their futures   
over and around the silent muscular boys
and I wait, like a peaceful man, hours on end,
for the truck out back to start, for the collie to die,
for the flies to come, for the summer to bring its reckoning.

Gerald Stern, "This is It" from This Time: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1977 by Gerald Stern.  Used by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Source: This Time: New and Selected Poems (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1998)

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Poet Gerald Stern b. 1925

Subjects Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries

 Gerald  Stern


Gerald Stern has been called an “American original,” “a sometimes comic, sometimes tragic visionary,” and, by his friend Stanley Kunitz, “the wilderness in American poetry.” Over dozens of books, and decades of teaching and activism, Stern has emerged as one of America’s most celebrated and irascible poets. “If I could choose one poem of mine to explain my stance,” Stern told Contemporary Poets, “it would be ‘The One Thing in . . .

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SUBJECT Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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