The Concession of “Saints”

In “Saints” Amy Gerstler begins with an odd juxtaposition of details about the peopls she describes, to odd effect. “Hair-shirted wonder workers. Shirkers of the soggy soggy earth.” The mix tends to obscure or blur the connotations of the details into something neither positive nor negative, but more toward tragic. The picture she draws here is at once both humble and elevated, perhaps elevated because of being humble.

“All over the world, a few humans are born each decade with a great talent for suffering. They have gifts that enable them to sleep through their mistreatment: the sleep of the uncomplaining just, the sleep of the incomplete.”

One isn’t quite sure what to make of this description. There doesn’t seem to be an argument present, as in many of the other examples of Concessional Structure. The focus is more on exploratory description. Phrases like “the uncomplaining just” are tinged with an attitude of rebuke for whatever causes these people to suffer, but in the end that does not add up to an argument.

The final line of the poem shifts into more cryptic territory:

“Our relationship to them is the same as our relationship to trees: what they exhale, we breathe.”

The way I read this line, Gerstler is making a philosophical commentary: You cannot have an easy life unless someone else is having a hard one. Easy is only easy when compared to difficult. Such an assertion could also be social rather than philosophical.

The best summary I can give of what concession Gerstler makes is “True, saints are not perfect. But their acceptance of this is what makes them so.” But even this seems to go beyond what is one the page, making her poem a much subtler and more understated version of the Concessional Structure.

2 Responses to “The Concession of “Saints””

  1. This poem gave me some trouble when we went over it in class and when I read it alone as a concessional poem. I agree with you about it overall as a poem and the core basis part of the ‘saintly nature of suffering’. Yet if it is looked at like a concessional poem in terms of being ‘confessional’ as we said in class, then I don’t really think that it is the speaker of the poem confessing at all. I feel that the tone is more based upon others and them being confessional about their troubles and worries, especially the line where she says that few have a talent for suffering and that they are technically the ‘saints’. I took it as she was giving more of her dissatisfaction for people who complain about their lives and the hardships they go through unlike the people who have a talent for it and probably don’t publicize it. Well, I guess then that it could be her ‘confession’ on how she doesn’t like it when people complain about the petty things when someone can wake up with a ‘ring on their finger and a hole in their throat’. But it comes down to the fact that this poem confuses me on whether it is the speakers ‘confession’ or if it is turned to the audience to ‘confess’. I am stumped.

  2. I, too, have bouts of difficulty with the concessional poems, mostly because they seem so similar to ironic poems. An ironic poem flips a notion on its head, a concessional poem flips previous statements on their heads. Hm.

    I love the interpretation “you cannot have an easy life unless someone else is having a hard one.” It reminds me of those sayings about this nation built on the backs of immigrants, and I find myself exploring “work” in my own poems. Has anybody ever read Donald Hall’s “Life Work?” I wouldn’t say it’s directly related to this, but it is truly a fascinating account of Hall’s positions on “work.” I highly recommend it.

    So does there have to be a poor/rich binary? I mean, obviously there is in actuality, but is it necessary? This is a social question, but it seems relevant. Saints versus sinners. Isn’t that what Gerstler is talking about? Again, I agree that this is very understated, and I’m not sure I’ve accomplished anything more than rambling…

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