I Remember Galileo
by Gerald Stern

 

I think of any turning—toward, away from, or into—as the essential creative impulse, and I find that I’m particularly drawn to poems with turns that move a poem’s evidence out of the head and into the body.  For me, Gerald Stern’s “I Remember Galileo” provides a great example of that kind of transformative turning.

Stern’s poem begins with several layers of thinking as the speaker remembers something that a historical figure once said about the nature of the mind, and so we too begin at a significant distance from bodily experience.  The poem follows Galileo’s metaphor for the mind being “a piece of paper blown around by the wind” for a few lines before taking the first swerve, as it were, into the road.

“[F]or years I watched paper leap,” Stern concedes, “but,” the turn is clearly signaled, “yesterday…”

And here is where the poem could be said to settle itself into the dialectical argument structure, taking up a thesis, offering a counterpoint, and eventually coming to a sort of synthesized resolution.  The mind is actually not a drifting piece of paper, Stern argues, because just “yesterday I saw the mind was a squirrel caught crossing / Route 80 between the wheels of a giant truck.”

“Yesterday” injects temporal and emotional urgency into the poem.  That fifteenth-century notion of Galileo’s may be fine to muse idyllically on, but as far as the speaker can tell, one must still figure out how to live in the modern world and he saw something happen yesterday that changed his understanding, and he needs to tell us about it now.

The poem lingers on the terrified squirrel, pausing “for only two seconds living / on the white concrete before he got away” then drawing out this image by focusing the reader’s attention in a series of syntactically parallel phrases: “his life shortened by all that terror, his head / jerking, his yellow teeth ground down to dust.”  This projection—I mean how the speaker sees and keeps seeing the squirrel—serves as the evidence for the antithesis.  Your mind may float like a piece of paper, but mine?  Some days mine moves like that, and like that, and like that.

In tracking the poem’s action verbs, we can see that they shift in terms of distance and intimacy, from “remembered” to “loved,” and from “watched” to “saw.”  The first stanza ends on “saw,” arguing for seeing (the act of understanding) through seeing (the act of visual perception).  And speaking of seeing, let’s return to Galileo for a minute.  He invented the telescope during a time when most still believed that the planets and stars rotated around the earth.  Galileo argued that the earth actually orbited the sun, effectively changing what we understand to be the center of the universe, and his cosmic questions ghost the poem.  How do you know what you know?  What is beyond what you can see with your eyes?  But what is consciousness without experience, Stern’s antithesis replies.

The poem’s final move seems to provide a “yes, but” sort of resolution as Stern acknowledges the limitations of his temporal perspective, while also insisting upon it as significant, as in the universe does in fact revolve around my life, because it’s the only one I have.  “Paper will do in theory, when there is time / to sit back in a metal chair and study shadows; / but for this life I need a squirrel.”

“Need” is the only verb we get twice.  I can see the greater timelessness of the cosmos, Stern concedes, but—and here the poem takes a final deep breath, gathering air into its lungs, calling up the big poetic O, and rising into singing—“O philosophical mind, O mind of paper.”  I need both.  I need whatever can prevent the giant and mindless machines of the modern world from smashing my skull.  I need whatever paper and squirrel mind survives, “rushing up his green ungoverned hillside.”

 

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Jenny Browne is the author of two collections of poems,  At Once and The Second Reason.  New poems and essays have recently appeared in American Poetry Review, Tin House, Pleiades, and Threepenny Review.  She lives in downtown San Antonio, Texas, and teaches at Trinity University.

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