This video segment from Poetry Everywhere features the poet Gerald Stern reading his poem "The Dancing" at the Dodge Poetry Festival. A poetry reviewer once wrote about Gerald Stern that his poems “[reveal] his emotions while revealing almost nothing about their origins.” “The Dancing” is filled with emotions that build to a terrible climax—but why?
For a biography of the poet Gerald Stern, please visit the Poetry Foundation Web site.
This poem has three settings: the present, with the narrator in an antique store looking for an old Philco brand radio; the past, with the narrator as a child dancing with his parents in Pittsburgh; and Europe at the end of World War II.
The sight of antiques in the store sends the narrator hurtling back in time to his childhood home, which had a Philco radio, and he lands at a specific moment: a memory of dancing to a song on the radio with his parents. It seems to have started out as a joke, with the boy narrator trying to poke fun at the dramatic music, and then his father joining in as his mother laughs. But the father dances a dance from the old country. The boy’s parents are from Ukraine, then a part of Russia, and at first the boy thinks his father’s old folk dance is ridiculous: “my father cupping/his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance/of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,/half fart.” But as they continue to dance, the boy feels like they are all transported back to the old country—“the world at last a meadow”—and the shouting, “whirling and singing” to the music is real, not a joke.
At this point the narrator suddenly jumps from Pittsburgh to “Poland and Germany.” It is 1945, and WWII is just over. The narrator suddenly compares his family’s frenzy, to “the other dancing” of Jewish people who stayed behind in Europe.
The narrator ends on this thought, as if his memory of the dancing has ended, and he is left in the present, in the antiques store, thinking of the atrocity of the war, and of his own family, and wondering at the fact that two so very different worlds could co-exist on one planet, and in one memory.
Read a biography of the poet Gerald Stern at the Poetry Foundation Web site.
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