“People often reduce identity to biography. If they have a story, then that’s who they believe they are. But in fact your identity is infinitely more complex, nuanced, and mysterious than your biography, or anything that could unfold in your biography.
"Which is why one of your duties is to imagine yourself."
—Catholic philosopher/poet John O’Donohue
Milligan Professor Emeritus of English Bert Stern turned 80 years old on May 24, 2010. This, the same year in which Steerage, his most recent collection of poems, was named a MassBook "Must-Read" Book of the Year by the 10th Annual Massachusetts Book Awards; a year in which his daughter, Anna, was married in Keene Valley, New York; and a year in which he prepared to help launch a new journal featuring the work of Vietnam vets working with Vietnamese poets, all the while continuing to teach probationers, edit for his Off the Grid Press, and spend much time with family.
The word emeritus is added to a professor’s name upon retirement. “Retired from assigned duties.” For many Wabash professors, retirement from assigned duties simply frees them to attend to the duties they assign themselves, to take seriously that duty John O’Donohue refers to in the quote above—"to imagine themselves"—the complexity, nuance, and mystery that is so much more than biography.
The ways in which Bert has done this have inspired many. He makes me look forward to growing older, even in the face of its pains and fears, with hope and imagination. He puts it so well: “As I’ve grown older, I realize not only the weight of time, but also the depth; the mystery deepens for us."
So I was glad to hear of Anna’s plans to celebrate his 80th birthday by inviting colleagues, former students, and friends to contribute notes and pieces to be collected and presented to Bert on that occasion. It seemed especially appropriate coming from her. I couldn’t help but recall Bert’s Wabash Magazine essay about his daughters, "Becoming Family."
And I felt honored just to contribute. Words come easily when evoked by gratitude, respect, even wonder. No doubt the dozens of others who sent their own messages felt the same way. Anna tells me that "about about 50 Wabash folks contributed, as well as an additional 70 or so people from other areas of his life."
She also sent some photos of Bert opening his gift, and I’ve included one here (and on the main page, that’s Anna on her wedding day in Keene Valley, with Bert and his wife, Tam Lin Neville.)
And I recently heard from Bert, who is working his way with his own gratitude through responding to these many messages. In an email with the subject line "ripeness is all," he had this to say about the gift:
"The book itself moves me deeply. As usual, there’s the surprise and pleasure of experiencing bits of one’s past return from what might have been time’s oubliette.
"But much more important was the gift of faces, personalities, teacher-student exchanges, moments when students and I stood in some kind of intimacy of mind and feeling. I mean to write notes to many of the students who remember me, most of whom I remember. But that will take a while. Until then, maybe you could post this deep note of thanks to everyone who helped write this book, and especially to the students who have come back to me in this way. To me as a teacher and human being, no gift could mean more."
Bert asked that I post his words here for anyone reading this who also contributed to his book. And here’s Bert’s Web site, and email—firstname.lastname@example.org—for anyone else who would like to send their best wishes.
Reviewing Bert’s book Steerage, poet and University of Massachusetts Professor of English Taylor Stoerh wrote, "Like all true art, this book leaves us better prepared to look for ourselves out that wondrous window it opens for us."
You could say the same of Bert, and his “retirement from assigned duties.”