2 poems by Lee Stern, Review by Greg Grummer

                                          BUTTONS, TOWELS, KEYS AND ROSES

                                          All the buttons in the world aren’t going to get you out of this mess.
                                          And all the towels aren’t going to keep you dry.
                                          All the keys you’ve stolen from me
                                          aren’t going to open up whichever door it was
                                          that you felt it was incumbent upon someone to open.
                                          And all the roses you planted
                                          aren’t going to be making apologies for my grave.
                                          But all of the buttons the world gave you are going to be enough.
                                          All of the towels they designed
                                          are going to have little animals next to them
                                          looking for someone’s pony to obey.
                                          And all of the keys I begged you to steal when I wasn’t around
                                          will be named for the roses I scattered,
                                          providing sustenance,
                                          pulling gravity away from the clowns.

                                          THE EYES OF THE MOON

                                          Everything has been placed so evenly apart
                                          that it makes me think you must have done it by design.
                                          Left to me it would have been a mess.
                                          And you would have reached over here for something you wanted
                                          And found out that it wasn’t possible to understand.
                                          And that’s why I’ve always raved about you
                                          and the structured manner of your thoroughness.
                                          You seem to know almost by instinct
                                          where various items have to go
                                          before they succumb to their own disorder.
                                          You put things in their places.
                                          And if it’s fallow ground for once they’re after (after they see it),
                                          you sing to the eyes of the moon.

                                          Lee Stern

                                                                        *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

                                                                          Review by Greg Grummer 

First off, I love poems that make me laugh. The first line, “All the buttons in the world aren’t going to get you out of this mess.” is quite funny. I could explain why, but if you don’t think it’s funny my explanation won’t help. But I think it’s very funny. Secondly, in a formal sense, I love how buttons, towels, keys and roses recurr, are glossed twice.

The first set is negative…this won’t do that, etc. The second time, it’s all different. The whole mood of the narrator has changed to a more nuanced, wise narrator, who “gets” it.

But ‘all the buttons the world gave you are going to be enough.’ That’s so delightfully hopeful. If anyone has been a member of a 12-step program, you’ll get this logic. You’re in a mess, and you can’t figure you’re way out. You’ve got a lot of buttons, a lot of personal resources, but they aren’t going to help you. You can’t do this by yourself. But the world will give you buttons (resources) and it will be enough. Beautiful.

Now each riff on the previously given word could follow that pattern, negative/ positive, but they don’t. The towels that won’t be able to dry you, well, they will have little animals next to them looking for someone’s pony to obey. That is just delightful. I’m not sure if it’s negative or positive, but it’s magical.

The rest follows that way. ‘All the keys I begged you to steal’ reverses the idea of ‘the keys you stole from me’, and implicates the narrator, in some way, or releases the “you” from blame, in a very forgiving and human way. You did dirt to me, but I wanted you to, or I coerced you into doing it, I’m sorry, and even though I’m dead, and perhaps you killed me, I’ll scatter roses for myself, for us, I’m not going down bitter, I’m going to pull some of the laughter from the clowns.

I don’t know if this is an accurate reading, and I wouldn’t attempt it if I weren’t trying to defend the poem and tease out the formalness of it, what makes it a poem. When I read it I feel these things happening under the surface, and I delight at them — like I once saw a basking shark in the ocean, down deep, and its mouth appeared green — like there was a green light down there, and I could have done research to find out what the green light was. I guessed it might be algea, who knows, but…


First, think of the ‘you’ being addressed as ‘God’. That really gives the lines “And that’s why I’ve always raved about you/and the structured manner of your thoroughness.” a big kick. What an interesting way to speak about her, what, faith? Now, she could just as easily be talking about a friend whose anal, but the ‘God’ notion gives this such a rich read, that I have a hard time looking at it any other way.

The last two lines are odd. Who’s this ‘they’? I read it as all those believers and unbelievers who don’t get it, who don’t get ‘God’, and who keep pushing against each other, fighting it out, or just a group of folk who are always “after” something, always straining, pursuing, grasping. The “for once” is quite provocative, insinuating, I think, that all that grasping and reaching and pursuing isn’t usually for anything substantial, anything fertile, but, in the cases where it is, once they see it, once they understand what “it” really is, not they, remarkably enough, but ‘you’ will then sing to the eyes of the moon. This seems to imply that once “they” fall into balance, ‘you’ can commence singing…and to what? Well, nothing, really, but an image, a conceit.

That’s the kind of sermon I expect in the church I go to, the kind of message I’m hoping to have delivered to me. Kind of an Emily Dickenson thing done without the knife. Or the rhyme scheme. Emily used, what, the rhythm of a hymn as her grounding device? This poet is using the rhythms of normal conversation. Imagine you had a friend that people had misunderstood, and you’re talking to them about that…

“Gee God, there’s such pattern to the world, all that roundness, the way things circle other things, the beauty of the way things interconnect and form systems and all, it makes me think You did it all on purpose. That there must have been a ‘You’ to do it all, an intelligence behind everything. Thank God it was You and not me who made the world. You know me, I’m such a klutz, I would have really screwed it up, and then when You, as me, would have tried to figure everything out, well, fat chance. Nothing would be where You’d think it should be. And since nothing made any sense, how could You understand? It just wouldn’t work. Which is why I talk You up so much to anyone I meet. Because You’re just that incredible.” (Now here, where she talks about “before they succumb to their own disorder” she gives God just a bit of a dig. God puts everything into its place, but it doesn’t stay there…oops. Or maybe she’s blaming “they” as she states it’s their disorder that they succumb to. I guess I’d argue that with her, but never mind.) But anyway, she takes God and discusses all that business as if she were talking to a friend. I find that charming.

Scroll to Top