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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

Gerald Stern’s poem “I Remember Galileo” is composed of two twelve-line free-verse stanzas in which Stern contrasts Galileo’s image of the mind as a “piece of paper blown around by the wind” with his own preferred image of the mind as a squirrel narrowly escaping death on the highway. The...

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Gerald Stern’s poem “I Remember Galileo” is composed of two twelve-line free-verse stanzas in which Stern contrasts Galileo’s image of the mind as a “piece of paper blown around by the wind” with his own preferred image of the mind as a squirrel narrowly escaping death on the highway. The poem exhibits Stern’s characteristic expansiveness (he is often compared to the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman) and humor, but in the end his point is serious as he applauds the squirrel’s insistent race to save his life (Stern appoints a masculine gender to the animal) instead of the paper’s random blowing.

Stern begins the poem by describing the piece of paper as Galileo saw it, “blown around by the wind,” an image he once found appealing, evidently in part because of its randomness. The implications of the metaphor for the mind are suggestive. Galileo says that the mind, like the paper, is subject to random forces outside itself, forces that take it into unpredictable places. That unpredictability is evident in the places Stern once imagined the paper—against a tree, in a car, in various cities. (Although the speaker of a poem should not necessarily be confused with the poet, in Stern’s work his voice is often so personal, as here, that the idea of a persona widely removed from the poet himself seems unnecessarily artificial.) Stern says he was satisfied with the comparison for years, but he has come to prefer another metaphor instead.

His new preference is for a squirrel like one he saw “crossing/ Route 80 between the wheels of a giant truck.” The squirrel escaped death under the truck’s wheels, though Stern describes the way the animal’s life must surely have been shortened “by all that terror.” In the second stanza Stern amplifies the significance of the squirrel as an image for the mind, noting especially his speed, “his lowness to the ground,/ his great purpose and the alertness of his dancing” as the qualities that distinguished the squirrel from the paper. The paper, Stern says, “will do in theory,” but the living animal is what is needed “for this life.” At the poem’s end, Stern leaves his usual conversational voice briefly to apostrophize “O philosophical mind, O mind of paper” and then explains to that mind his need for the squirrel and his “wild dash.”

Throughout the poem Stern moves easily from serious commentary to a sort of humorous exaggeration (as in the description of the squirrel’s fear at his narrow escape) and finally, as in the last three lines, to a higher level of lyricism as he praises the squirrel’s intensity. That intensity is what makes the squirrel an appealing image for what Stern admires in the mind; it chooses where it will go instead of being blown randomly into cars and trees.

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