This Time offers Gerald Stern’s readers a wide selection from his work, beginning with Rejoicings (1973) and continuing through six more volumes to a selection of uncollected poems. It includes many earlier works that are no longer readily available. To read through the collection is both to see the evolution of Stern’s work and to sense the coherence of its fabric. Throughout his career, Stern has returned repeatedly to certain techniques (most notably the use of surreal patterns of imagery and his fondness for long lines) and to familiar themes—animals, a celebration of self, and an interest in American settings and historical figures.
Stern’s use of surrealism is one of his most striking characteristics. His poems rarely develop in a linear way; instead, they often follow a path that Stern relies on the reader’s intuitions to apprehend. A good example is “The Shirt Poem” (from The Red Coal, 1981). Stern begins by imagining a closetful of shirts and quickly moves from treating them as garments to giving them human qualities. He must open the closet to “let them out,” and he must light candles “to soothe them.” Yet the shirts are not appeased: “Gone is the sweetness in that closet, gone is the dream/ of brotherhood, the affectionate meeting/ of thinkers and workers inside a rented hall./ Gone are the folding chairs, gone forever/ the sacred locking of elbows under the two flags.” The shirts seem to have become men from Stern’s past, perhaps men at a political rally. The next stanza notes that the meetings were held on Sunday nights and that rabbis once joined them, “religion and economics were finally combined in exile.” Later still, the speaker asks the “dead ones” to forgive him for his “rich life”: “Forgive me for the enormous budget and the bureaucracy and the permanent army.”
From that point, Stern moves the poem into a meditation on past, suggesting indirectly that he is addressing the men who wore shirts like these, men he once knew in a synagogue or library or at a political meeting. Now he commemorates them as part of the fabric of his memory and of his idealism (“because I believed in Shelley”). He names two of those men, Rabbi Kook and Malatesta; the latter “believed in/ the perfect world” but at the same time could see through the State to “the heart/ and what it wanted, the beautiful cramped heart.” Finally Stern returns to the shirts, now dancing by the river, screaming and flapping “like prehistoric birds” until they fly back into the closet, where they must remain until memory cracks open the door again.
Sometimes Stern uses a less-demanding surrealistic vision, as in “The Dog,” a poem spoken by a dog that has died by the roadside—an unlikely voice but one which, once the reader understands its source, speaks about subjects the reader might imagine: “Great heart,/ great human heart, keep loving me. . . .” Occasionally, Stern speaks directly. In the often- anthologized “Behaving Like a Jew,” the speaker finds a dead possum on the roadside and says that he will refuse to mouth the usual platitudes about cycles of nature; instead, he will “behave like a Jew” in order to give the creature a proper mourning in celebration of the life that has gone out of the animal’s “little dancing feet.”
As the previous discussion suggests, everyday animals are the subject of many of these poems, either as themselves or as metaphor (as the possum in “Behaving Like a Jew” seems metaphorically to evoke Jews who died in the Holocaust). In “I Remember Galileo,” Stern contrasts Galileo’s description of the mind as a piece of paper with his own perceptions of the mind as a squirrel “caught crossing/ Route 80 between the wheels of a giant truck.” In terror, the animal races back and forth between the huge wheels until he escapes. That is the image this absurd and frightening world demands. Stern remarks that “for this life I need a squirrel,/ his clawed feet spread, his whole soul quivering.”
Dogs, squirrels, crows, chickens, cardinals, swallows, possums—these are only one part of the ordinary world that Stern celebrates in many of the poems in this collection. “Grapefruit,” for example, opens with the speaker eating grapefruit for breakfast, standing over the sink so that the juice does not spatter...