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Essay on Rime, by Gerald Stern

October 22, 1995

God knows those apes my father's relatives

born in the Ukraine and raised on white cheese and herring

will live till their hundred and twenties so I will be

careful when I tell my Ukrainian tales

and check all the cities from Novgorod to Dallas.

God knows, God knows, they lived on a small farm

owned by ethnic Germans and cut trees down

and studied for only a month a year in the autumn

and one in spring. God the trumpeter knows

that one of them owned a stogie factory in Pittsburgh

and one was a dentist in Michigan and one

had a perfume shop on the rue Madeleine and drove

a Buick. Because of his luck and where he was sent

to sojourn during the first days of the War

one of them ended up in Florida filling

prescriptions and later cashing checks. I

who have the brains in the family, I ended up

on a wooden porch arguing with a swallow

and wrestling with a bluebell. My plan is now

to live in three places, maybe divide my books

and maybe divide my time. One of my houses

will have to be near Turkey since that is the way

to get back to the Crimea and the Sea of

Azov; and I have chosen Samos only

because Pythagoras rebuked the petty tyrant

Polycrates there by the waters of Ambelos;

and I could have a cat who eats his catch

behind the wet rocks and shakes his rear leg, and read

my American subscriptions and rant as I did

when I was twenty, even if I was alone, though

I would be, I think, surrounded as always

and listen to the sound of waves assembling

and count the intervals. Even the druggist,

even the parfumist, would understand that,

wouldn't they, my rich cousins who burned, the one

at Nice, the other at Coral Gables. I who

sat and slept for hours and knew the white crests

and the brown valleys and what they meant, and I

who loved the sun just as they did and burned

from the same fire I sang with my broken fingers.

From "Odd Mercy" by Gerald Stern. (Norton: $18.95; 112 pp.) 1995 Reprinted by permission.

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