The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Gerald Stern’s “Behaving Like a Jew” is a short lyric poem, twenty-eight lines of free verse in one stanza. It might better be called a lyric meditation, or even an elegy. The poem opens with a simple past-tense description of the body of a dead opossum. It looked like “an enormous baby sleeping on the road.” However, the wind was blowing through its hair, making it appear lifelike, and the speaker is overcome with an overwhelming feeling of sadness, something he terms his “animal sorrow.” This is physical sorrow, expressed by the body, a genuine mourning.

The poem shifts into the present tense (“I am sick of the country”) as he laments the ever-present roadkill, the generic deaths that leave bloodstained bumpers and lifeless birds at the edge of the highway. The speaker realizes that he is unwilling to simply note this one small death and go on. He is “sick” of the spirit of Charles Lindbergh, what he calls “that joy in death, that philosophical/ understanding of carnage.” In opposition to a predominantly Christian world, he decides that he will, in effect, weep and wail, that he will treat it for what it is—the singular death of a singular living creature—without recourse to a concept of an afterlife. Beginning with the poem’s only short sentence, set off with a dash, the poet self-consciously announces what he is going to do:

—I am going to be unappeased at the...

(The entire section is 460 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Stern’s poetry is characterized by its idiosyncratic voice—one any reader could recognize instantly as belonging to him alone. Exuberant and celebratory, it is a voice that always seems to come from the most visceral center of the man: To read his books is to accompany the poet on a sort of spiritual autobiography. This voice is not that of a confessional persona pretending to “tell all”; what is most amazing perhaps is that it does not invite or even seem to need the reader. Readers participate fully, but as bystanders. The voice performs, and the reader follows.

Stern’s expansive voice is achieved through an associative method of progression. What one sees is the process—a scattering of real moments and personal connections, a twist of synapses, then further observation, odd pairings that lead to new ideas. The effect is that of spontaneous thought. “Behaving Like a Jew” is no exception. There is a complicated mix of tenses so that chronological time becomes somewhat meaningless. The poem begins in the past but soon resorts to the participle, what could be called speculative time: an imagined space in which Stern thinks his way into an imagined action. Stern uses a number of repetitive moves (“I am sickI am sickI am goingI am goingI am not going”) to identify the trajectory of his thought. Thus the poem is able to contain the long past (the past of Lindbergh, the past of the Holocaust) as it spirals inward to where self and history...

(The entire section is 536 words.)