View from the Tenth Decade: An Interview with Gerald Stern

Will Durham

BPR 45 | 2018

Excerpt (full interview available in Birmingham Poetry Review number 45 and as a downloadable pdf)

Durham

In your 2017 memoir Death Watch: A View from the Tenth Decade, five of the chapters contain the name “Shoshana” in their titles, and each of these chapters ends with that famous Old Testament name. Can you discuss your thinking behind these linked chapters?

Stern

The whole presence of the Shoshana chapters is probably to create a counterforce to the obsessions with death. Or perhaps it’s love versus death. Though it’s not really love—it’s spying. It’s some form of love, anyhow. Historically, it’s seen as lust. At the time, I was looking at the Wallace Stevens poem about Shoshana and the elders. Stevens creates his own concept of what Susanna is, what the elders are.

Let me read a little from the chapter called “Shoshana and the Elders,” to give people a sense of what we’re talking about. At this point in the book, I’m talking about graveyards and death and such, and then I start thinking about the legend of Susanna and the elders:

Some contemporary painters reconsider the myth directly (Benton) and some (Picasso), indirectly. It is a well-known story but the source—the Book of Daniel—is not so well known. There it is seen not as an erotic tale but as a question of justice and the need to cross-examine witnesses, who, as in this case, may be false witnesses. I am puzzled by how such a myth made its way into a book about death. Maybe love, or love-making, is an interruption or an opposite, as Freud suggests. But why this form of love? Maybe it came from a reading of Stevens’s poem “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” It is certainly significant that it was—at least in name—the elders who lusted for Susanna. […]

Wallace Stevens has an odd take on the elders. What they experience—in the poem—is a kind of music, since, as he says, “Music is feeling, then, not sound; /And thus it is that what I feel, / Here in this room, desiring you, // Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk, / Is music. It is like the strain / Waked in the elders by Susanna”—so that “the red-eyed” elders watching Susanna “felt / The basses of their beings throb / In witching chords […]” It is “melody” that went on belittling them: “Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings / Of those white elders.” It is a gorgeous poem, and its gorgeosity has carried it since 1915. But what Stevens says is astounding. And, at bottom, it is she—in Stevens’s poem—who entices the elders, and no one is innocent.

I address myself in the book to a number of “Susanna and elder” concepts and experiences, and I start off in this chap- ter recollecting a meeting in Greece with an Englishwoman who was on a ferry going from Athens to Crete. We talked and stayed up all night and decided to travel together. But there was really not a sexual context. She wasn’t attracted to me, and I wasn’t much—at least in the beginning—attracted to her, and I didn’t lust for her. Although, she had been to this city in Crete before, and on the first day we went swimming in the bay and we went nude. She was a very beautiful woman, except one of her arms was withered, as a result of an accident she had as a younger woman horseback riding. Anyhow, the story goes on about what our experiences were, and why she was there, and I’ll just talk about that for a second, though I go into detail in the chapter.

She really had come back to this little town in Crete to meet a younger guy—younger than she—whom she had met or seen a couple times before when she visited there. And she went off one day to meet this guy, and she came back early in tears. I have no idea what happened—he was brutal or indifferent, or something like that—and she came to my bed and wanted to sleep with me, or at least not so much sleep with me but sleep with me. And we became lovers. And that was one “Shoshana and the elders” experience. She left on a bus a week later, and I helped put her bags on the bus, and she was weeping and crying, wanting to stay, but she had to go back to work in London.

Read the full introduction in Birmingham Poetry Review 45, or download the PDF.