Save the Last Dance
Vacancy and loss take central place in the deeply felt, lyrical poems of Save the Last Dance. Rarely directly evoked, except in the discursive long poem “The Preacher,” which ends the volume, this sense of absencein Gerald Stern’s life and in other livestakes a variety of forms. The most poignant expressions appear during his meditations upon other, senior poets or in his recollections of his early years. The personal flavor of these lyrics leads the reader to regard the “I” of the poems not as an anonymous speaker, but as Stern himself. In the short poems that make up most of the volume, he infrequently looks on the world immediately outside, for the one within him more pressingly holds his attention. He turns senses inward to rediscover his pastalthough it seems a past he can only look around and not see directly or hold. In many of the poems, what strikes the reader is that the absences are more powerfully “present” than the people or objects that are, in Stern’s elusive lines, supposedly being presented.
A particularly effective poem, “One Poet,” speaks of an old poet now in his sixties and expresses Stern’s yearning for actions never completed and perhaps never initiated. Stern remembers wanting to tell the “one poet” of reading his book and of treasuring what he found there, “but I couldn’t tell him that/ nor did I ever write, since I lost his/ letter.” Stern then dwells upon that letter, which he remembers putting into an inside pocket, alongside some pens, and then he imagines how he might have lost itwhile looking for something else he has lost: his keys. In dreamlike fashion, his memory then shifts again, and he recalls how the poet, apparently upset at Stern, “barked,” ignorant of Stern’s strong feelings for the poet’s work. In another dreamlike turn, Stern then visualizes a dog that has attacked a park pigeon and has blood on its face.
“One Poet” seems to present a series of individual moments revolving around a real individual in Stern’s life, and other poems do make direct, pointed reference to his contemporaries and elders. Nevertheless, the “one poet” remains anonymousout of discretion, the reader might think. Stern may not have wanted to point out the one who “barked at me not knowing/ how much I loved his work.” The poem resists such a reading, however, because of the almost inexplicable first words of the opening lines: “As if one poet then who was in his sixties/ I wanted to tell him that I read his book.” The words “As if one poet then” change the reader’s understanding of the poem’s title. While they might be read as turning the poem back upon the author himself, they even more strongly expand the character of the “one poet” to a more generalized being, perhaps a composite of the various respected poets Stern had encountered without making adequate connection. The strong sense of regretdepicted as moments of missed opportunity and embodied in misplaced items of importanceseems greater than a sorrow over a single missed chance. It applies not to one moment but to all such moments, and it applies not just to a lost letter but to the very “keys”the essential items of a life.
Stern presents other poems about poets or inspired by thoughts and memories of poetsincluding “Wordsworth” and “Lorca”that have for their taking-off points literary, not personal, memory. The poem “Rukeyser” is among the most effective in the volume, framing Stern’s meditations on absence in terms of a “visit with Muriel in her New York apartment,/ helping her into the kitchen, making her tea.” Rukeyser is obviously frail, and their meeting is brief“we were alone for an hour until her nurse/ came back and scolded her for leaving her bed.” The reader senses that Stern’s presence in the room is brought about by a sense of devotionto Rukeyser and to the idea of poetry itself. When he sees her look of “abandonment,” however, and then is seized by an image of “when she let/ her poems fall on the floor in Philadelphia,” the room becomes someplace he must flee: “but I never finished my tea and I escaped/ before the nurse could get to me and I/ turned west, for the record, near Lexington, I think,/ against the sun, for it was March already.” In these closing lines Stern brings the reader around to a sense of time passing swiftly, hurrying on to bring the poet not so much the experience of the new as the loss of the old.
All loss in these poems is not entirely on the side of the poet; and all is not debit against achievement or memory. In “Lost Shoe,” the title refers not to the loss of...
(The entire section is 1897 words.)