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.

6 thoughts on “Stern’s “Swan Legs””

  1. I think this one’s about appetite, probably sexual appetite, and how those feasting-even the speaker himself-see only the meal and not the being (so wrongly loved) that they’re consuming. The swan with a voice is, I think, a former “love” and he describes his relation to her in the language of a meal, which is to say he “couldn’t care less” about the person. Pretty disturbing stuff.
    I must say, there’s no way I could read fifty pages of Stern’s writing in one day and hope to understand any of it. I’d be thinking only of getting through it.

  2. Well, I suppose one of my criticisms would have to be that you have to put in to much effort for what you get back from the poems.

    I’m assuming the Stern is referring to: “The scenario of Swan Lake is indeed a typical 19th century ballet cliché – where the hero falls in love with the heroine, who is usually an enchanted woman or supernatural female creature, with the story usually ending in tragedy, resulting in death for the lovers, sometimes ending with an apotheosis where their spirits are reunited.”

    The “pricks” in the audience are incapable of feeling love, though they are more than happy to exploit others for their own satisfaction.

  3. I agree on all points, especially the criticism on the required effort for these poems. They certainly do require thought and time. Maybe they’re poems that need to cook a while in the brain and that we should go back to after a couple weeks.
    I’d say that when Stern’s speaker refers to his talent in spotting other “pricks,” it’s an observation on how we see don’t see qualities in ourselves that we find so offensive in others.

  4. This poem left me with plenty of questions, so I looked in Google for the synopsis of Swan Lake and also for any information about the woman who played the swan and stopped dancing. Here’s what I found:

    “Maya Plisetskya [80 years old] talks about being called in at the last minute to dance Swan Lake for Chairman Mao, and the fact that Joseph Stalin apparently saw her dance, but incognito, and then died the next day. Incredible stories, which Maya tells with a mix of pride and contempt for the old Soviet government. For those who have read Maya’s autobiography, you know that Maya’s life was anything but easy. Her childhood was fraught with terror — her father executed, her mother imprisoned. She was tailed constantly by the KGB for much of her career.” (from a review by Ivy Lin on of the DVD “Maya Plisetskaya / Diva of Dance.”

    The reference to vinegar at the end made me think of Jesus being offered vinegar as he was dying, especially because at the end of Swan Lake,the Prince and Odette, “ascend into heaven.”

    Curious that Stern says “when I was a swan myself.”

    A puzzling and disturbing poem on all accounts.

  5. Those are intriguing details, Amanda, and I suspect Stern knew her story when he wrote this poem.

    It’s amazing how the internet has changed the reading of poems. I find myself looking up names all the time, though I might have had trouble finding this.

  6. heres how i read the last ten lines:
    swan lake is about transformation, okay? so the ballet, the dancer and an actual swan are getting mixed up, with the “dark beak” and the “leaping” and the “harp.” things start to melt. the poet speaks of being a swan because he can imagine it, he “almost floated.” then “the one i remember she sang a little..” now, yes, were getting back to swan as woman or vice versa (though i dont see anything more specific). now the part that puzzled you, “the leg is wider than a chickens” etc.: it appears the poet once ate swan, and is telling about it, and suggesting that vinegar was used to make things easier in killing it. the transitions are completely abrupt and cubistic, all the associations layered on top of each other so the connections and congruencies can appear–just as the human dancer represents a swan that is itself a transformation, with metaphorical consequence all around.
    does that help any?

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