Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 476

Stern is a free-verse poet; he does not use conventional forms, and his use of traditional figures of speech is sparse. In this poem he creates a stanza break, not so much to contrast the idea of the paper with the squirrel but instead to use the second stanza to define and amplify exactly what about the squirrel resembles the mind.

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The conversational tone with which Stern begins is typical of his work; he sounds as if he is continuing a conversation he has already begun with the reader. Throughout most of the poem his diction is colloquial, the ordinary language of conversation among educated people, thus supporting the conversational tone. Even the first figure of speech, the simile of mind and paper, is introduced quite matter-of-factly. Stern recalls what Galileo said about mind being like “a piece of paper blown around by the wind,” asserts that he “loved the sight of it,” and imagines the places the paper might blow—a tree, “the backseat of a car.” At last, with an air of exaggeration, he claims that for years the paper would “leap” through his cities.

The next simile is Stern’s own, the comparison of the mind to a squirrel. Stern locates the squirrel precisely; it is on Route 80 and caught “between the wheels of a giant truck.” Stern compares the squirrel’s indecisive darting to “a thin leaf,/ or a frightened string,” but in fact the scene is one that almost everyone has seen—a squirrel wavering in his own misjudgment about the speed of oncoming traffic, darting now in one direction, now another.

Although Stern is present as observer and recorder through most of this poem, at this point he views the situation from the squirrel’s point of view, imagining how terror has shortened his life, has even caused “his yellow teeth” to be “ground down to dust” (perhaps another exaggeration).

The second stanza explains why the animal seems a more satisfactory mind-model than the paper. Paper, Stern says, is for theory, “when there is time/ to sit back in a metal chair and study shadows.” Yet life is not carried out in the metal office chairs of theory; the squirrel’s speed and intensity at this crucial moment of his life are what move Stern, “his great purpose and the alertness of his dancing.” Stern goes on to describe how the threat of death electrifies the squirrel and makes his life somehow more vivid. At that point Stern indents a line and, in the last three rather Whitmanesque lines, addresses the“philosophical mind” of paper, telling it that he needs not it but the squirrel, which seems now to represent raw energy as he makes the dash which saves his life and lets him run “up his green ungoverned hillside,” a free being who has gambled for his own fate.

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Themes