Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Many of Gerald Stern’s poems are about loss. They hinge on a before and after—his love poems often have an elegiac note at their inception. “Bread Without Sugar,” however, contains two simultaneous presents—the one of the immediate, felt world and the one of his active imagining. Yet the poem is not so much about the present as it is about the past and the future that are opened by present circumstances. Just as the poet is able to reflect on several distinct pasts, he confidently projects a variety of futures.

Because there are fleeting moments of direct address, as though the poem were intermittently spoken to Ted Solotaroff, it implies a shared history. It documents the experience of the wandering Jew, but it is also about the simple sustenance—the bread without sugar—of family, neighborhood, country. In the end the poem pays homage to America and its immigrant experience. In celebrating his own family’s history, Stern speaks for all the forgotten, for those who died in the Holocaust, producing a kind of “justice.”

“Bread Without Sugar” begins with the speaker standing “between two continents” and ends with him fixed (in his imagination) on the sandy beach of his past. The poem is concerned with balance—one version of life versus another, one impulse set against its opposite, a veritable scale on which justice will be weighed. In every instance, thought itself is at stake, presenting as it does alternative ways of...

(The entire section is 461 words.)