Stern’s “Swan Legs”

Despite finally succumbing to the cold that everyone here has been passing around since Christmas, I managed to finish the last hundred pages of Gerald Stern’s This Time in the last two days.

Unfortunately, I found it more of a struggle than I did for the first third of the book, as Stern pushes further and further into a world that I don’t particularly understand, and, more importantly, don’t identify with, whether it is the industrialized East Coast or the Cultural world of Pavarotti .

Although I did find the much-mentioned “Both of Them Were Sixty-Five” where Stern describes his introduction of his mother Ida to Aaron Copeland rather entertaining, I seldom identified with most of the poems here, perhaps with the exception of this one:


just for a second, when Mao stood up and walked
out of the theater in Leningrad the swan
stopped dancing and Khruschev just shrugged his shoulders
and lowered his eyes. Mao’s hatred of tutus
prevailed as his hatred of Russian food
and his hatred of clean napkins. Nixon and Kissinger
sat for the swan in Washington-they passed
notes between them and when they were finished reading
they tore them in tiny pieces. The swan believed
in suffering so she floated across the stage,
well, sort of floated, and so it goes; the pricks
down there in their seats they couldn’t care less, they feasted
on swan legs, they took care of themselves,
yet why should I pick on them, there is enough
feasting even without them. I usually know
pricks, the swan is lucky for such a bird
to do what she does to music, to do it to song,
her head in the air, so misunderstood and hated,
so wrongly loved; first her dark beak swaying,
and that is the violin, and then her leaping,
and that is the harp, or the comb-look at me forgetting
the comb, and the sweet potato, when I was a swan
myself, and I almost floated; the one I remember
she sang and trilled a little, that was a swan
with a voice, the thigh is wider than a chicken’s,
the flesh is dark and stringy; it was vinegar
they forced down the throat, plain distilled white vinegar,
to soften the wild flesh and kill the suffering.

Though I suspect Stern might place me closer to Mao than to himself, as a lover of some of the arts it’s hard to miss that world leaders seldom share that love. Though, considering Mao’s renown as a poet, it’s a little surprising that Stern chose his lack of appreciation of Russian ballet to skewer him.

It’s probably not entirely coincidental that literary people were so fond of Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, rare American leaders that seemed fond of literature and the arts.

Of course, I’m still enough of an old-world socialist that I can identify with the lines “the pricks/ down there in their seats they couldn’t care less, they feasted/ on swan legs, they took care of themselves.” Even Democrats seem more concerned with taking care of themselves than taking care of those who believe “in suffering.”

I’ll have to admit, though, that I’m not quite sure what to do with last part of the poem and the lines “that was a swan/ with a voice, the thigh is wider than a chicken’s,/ the flesh is dark and stringy,” but I’ve never had to completely understand a poem to appreciate it.