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Gerald Stern's "I Who Lifted a Car"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Gerald Stern

Introduction and Text of "I Who Lifted a Car"

Gerald Stern's "I Who Lifted a Car" features four cinquains. Its theme is self-deprecation. The speaker is aging and unsettled by the degeneration of his physical and mental faculties.

The ambiguity of the title adds to the hint of dementia: did he lift the car physically from the ground with his muscles or did he steal a car? Either scenario would suggest a man stronger in body and mind than the one that speaker is now describing.

I Who Lifted a Car

My lips say the words too slow
but I am a drop in the bucket
and my body will never catch up
for I am going in reverse
and my slow mind has ruined me;

and pound for pound the fleabane
weighs the same as iron does
and one of my obsessions
is guessing the weight of bridges,
I who traveled by car,

and I can guess the weight
of a woman I am so good
though my lips says the words too slow
and my heart goes out to a woman,
I who drove a car.

But I am a drop in the bucket
and my body will never catch up
for I am going in reverse
and my slow mind has ruined me,
I who lifted a car.

Commentary

This poem plays with reconstituted clichés and expressions that demonstrate the ruination of a body and mind plummeting into dementia. By "lifted a car," does the speaker mean he stole a car or just picked up a car with his muscles? What does the ambiguity suggest?

First Cinquain: Litany of Complaints

My lips say the words too slow
but I am a drop in the bucket
and my body will never catch up
for I am going in reverse
and my slow mind has ruined me;

The speaker begins his litany of complaints by remarking that his "lips say the words too slow." He might have added ungrammatically, as he saw fit to let an adjective do the work of an adverb. The next line features a reconstituted cliché: "I am a drop in the bucket," ostensibly allowing the reader to associate that the speaker is about to kick the bucket, while merely stating that he is not important. This clever use of clichés adds both colorful interest as well as meaning to the lines of these poems. The speaker is demonstrating that he is aware of the overused phrases, while at the same time he is refreshing them, making them, at least, somewhat new.

The speaker then reports that his body will never catch up because he is actually moving backward, signaling that he is no long making progress toward any important goal. He then complains that his slow mind has ruined him. He does not make clear just what it is with which he will never catch up. Quite possibly, he is going in reverse back to his childhood, another clichéd scheme that the aging human being re-enters his childhood, if he lives long enough to experience dementia. He leaves enough space for readers to fill in the blanks between the knowing and not-knowing that the speaker as well as his readers/listeners experience as they hear his report.

Second Cinquain: Trick-Riddle

and pound for pound the fleabane
weighs the same as iron does
and one of my obsessions
is guessing the weight of bridges,
I who traveled by car,

The speaker again reconstitutes an old concept: the trick-riddle, which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead? This speaker, for whom the reader at this point must begin to feel sympathetic, easily forgives these lapses; after all, the speaker has admitted that he is suffering from the on-set of Alzheimers. Therefore, instead of deriding the cliché, the reader has to defend them as rather clever for a mind that is in ruin.

Thus, the fleabane and the iron having the same weight pound for pound demonstrates the presence at least of some agility of mind. The speaker then reports that he has alway had the strange obsession of wanting to try to guess the weight of bridges. He follows this confession with the revelation that he has, indeed, "traveled by car." No doubt, he has seen those bridges whose weight over which he obsessed, while traveling by car. He knows he is not really adding any information, but he is definitely demonstrating his mental issues, somewhat like the old geezer who just keeps repeating himself—only this speaker, it may be assumed, is still in greater control of his faculties at this point than he thinks he will be later on.

Third Cinquain: A Doubtful Fact

and I can guess the weight
of a woman I am so good
though my lips says the words too slow
and my heart goes out to a woman,
I who drove a car.

The speaker then unveils the dubious factoid that he can "guess the weight / of a woman," because he is so good. He adds that even though his lips says the words too slow, his '"heart goes out to a woman." Again, the grammar deficiency, "lips says," but again the reader understands that this is the speaker's ruined mind at work.

That the speaker's heart goes out to a woman remains unqualified and unelaborated; she must remain a mystery woman. The speaker then adds, "I who drove a car. " Not only did he travel by car back when he was becoming obsessed with the weight of bridges, but he also drove a car.

Fourth Cinquain: Downbeat Hodgepodge

But I am a drop in the bucket
and my body will never catch up
for I am going in reverse
and my slow mind has ruined me,
I who lifted a car.

The fourth cinquain features a villanelle-like repetition of early lines: the speaker is a "drop in the bucket," his "body will never catch up," he is "going in reverse," and his "slow mind has ruined [him]." All this downbeat hodgepodge is happening to someone who lifted a car, an important line because it also titles the poem.

It is quite appropriate that the reader cannot be sure if by "lifted a car" the speaker means that he stole a car or he raised a car from the ground with his muscles. It is likely the latter, but either would imply a strength of body and mind, the loss of which the speaker is now lamenting.

Stern Reads at the 2006 Dodge Poetry Festival

Gerald Stern reading his poem, "Frogs"

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 23, 2015:

John, Thank you for responding and posting that quotation. Poetry is the sum total of what poets and lovers of poetry say it is, and the definition is never, thankfully, complete . . .

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 23, 2015:

I love what Toi Derricotte opined about Stern: “Gerald Stern has made an immense contribution to American poetry. His poems are not only great poems, memorable ones, but ones that get into your heart and stay there. Their lyrical ecstasies take you up for that moment so that your vision is changed, you are changed. The voice is intimate, someone unafraid to be imperfect. Gerald Stern’s poems sing in praise of the natural world, and in outrage of whatever is antihuman.”

Andrei Andreescu from Seattle, Washington on November 22, 2015:

What a titan of Surrealism Gerald Stern is!

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 13, 2015:

Thank you Maya, glad you like that quotation.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on October 13, 2015:

Thank you, John! Love your quotation: "Poetry is a gentle river flowing through a rocky and mountainous landscape of prose." Look forward to perusing more of your creative efforts!

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 13, 2015:

Thank you for sharing this interesting poem and for your synopsis.