“The Crossing,” The New Yorker, October 27, 2008
What I find interesting about many Gerald Stern poems, including “The Crossing,” is their unique conversationality. Reading “The Crossing” is like partaking in a conversation in which the other interlocutor never pauses long enough for you to sneak in a word, whose habit of speech is sort of convoluted arabesque, and who paces while he talks, strolling you down a sidewalk whose visual and aural distractions infiltrate his line of thought and alter the things he’s about say pretty much right as he says them. He’s easily distracted, yet manages to hang on to his main topic by a thread. He’s simultaneously determined and spontaneous.
“The Crossing” is one, twenty-six line stanza whose lines are all of a similar length, roughly five to six stresses. This matters because the line hovers around the length of a pentameter line, traditionally useful for narrative, and Stern’s poem bears at least the guise of narrative. It feels like his speaker is telling a story, even though the narrative itself is narrative only in pieces. Consider Stern’s opening line: “Not to forget that we had wooden guns once . . .” The speaker begins in medias res, just after (I get the impression) a slight pause in which his audience could’ve, but didn’t, speak up to interrupt his one-sided dialogue. We are starting this poem by continuing a conversation, as though the narrative points of who, what, where, and when have already been determined. But, they haven’t, and the poem as a whole sort of skirts the issue, compromising the narrative.
Really the poem’s a lyric that shifts quickly in time and space. Stern makes heavy use of the run-on sentence and and to transition from the various As and Bs in the poem and to create the poem’s sense of historical and present-day mingling. What begins in World War II travels backward—it doesn’t travel, actually; it just goes!—to the American Revolutionary War and then scoots quickly forward to the present. The first two transitions are reader-friendly, each occurring over a line break: “Not to forget that we had wooden guns once / just as the Germans did when they invaded / the Ruhr in 1936 and likewise / we abandoned wallpaper for paint / and there was an army of 500,000 monkeys / . . .” The opening two lines of the poem are a set-up for what’s about to occur because they are complete thoughts in-and-of-themselves: they can be made sense of when read in isolation from the surrounding context. They are comfortable and easy to read for this reason. In contrast, line three feels incomplete, lacking a verb to attach to “the Ruhr,” being more forcefully enjambed than its precursors. The very next line, however, echoes the first two by being a complete thought, thus recreating the initial comfort. This wouldn’t be a big deal except it’s in this line that Stern makes his first shift, his first transition: we move from Germany’s wooden guns in 1936 to an unspecified we who are transitioning with the times from wallpaper to paint in an unspecified time and place (perhaps this was also in 1936?). By my account, contextually, it’s a sizeable, lyric shift. But, the echo in line-making softens the blow. Things run together. Time and space—times and spaces—seem all of a piece, and the result is a gesture toward simultaneity that the poem repeats. This is the first crossing in the poem. To further illustrate this point, consider how uncrossed the lines would be if something as simple as a stanza break occurred after line three such that “we abandoned wallpaper for paint” was written after a line of white space. The pause duration would lengthen; the white space would indicate something else was about to happen. As is, without the break, the something-that-is merely carries forward, morphing content as it travels along.
Now that this first shift has taken place, the others can happen more haphazardly. Case in point, the ensuing enjambments are much more difficult than those in the first handful of lines. This works because precedence has been set and because the speaker not only has our attention, he has momentum. Enjambments keep the poem rolling down the page, as does the lack of commas, and words spilling out of the speaker’s mouth. By the poem’s end, things become so disjointed that when “we spoke Deutsche and everyone hugged / the person to his right although the left was / not out of the question,” the action still seems placed in Revolutionary Times—and it may be. The we who spoke Deutsche, however, remains unspecified, as much a contemporary we as an historical one. It’s hard to tell. The fact is readers are likely to skim over that inconsistency at this point in the poem, caught up in the speed and smoothness of transition of the speaker.
But not to completely derail his train of thought, the speaker drops a few keywords into the end of his speech to keep things connected. Yes, “hug your monkey” appears to come out of nowhere, but in live five we were informed about “an army of 500,000 monkeys.” As for the list of rivers, we’ve been talking about several rivers already. The poem makes connections here as much as it breaks new ground. It sort of circumnavigates itself, beginning with war (made silly with its wooden guns) and ending with hugs and kisses. We end where we begin, but we’ve changed.