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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 480 words.)

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