Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

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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 approaching any subject. Stern’s tentative, self-interrogating voice inevitably complicates the issue. Thought turns on itself, finally isolating the poet. By questioning itself, this voice accepts all of human nature, so “Bread Without Sugar” is able to range through personal and cultural history in order to lay Stern’s father to rest. Only through the written word can they finally be “at peace with each other.”

Stern’s previous work has fashioned a special relationship between his readers and the personal (and sometimes very intimate) details he shares with them. The self presented in “Bread Without Sugar” is created almost exclusively by his poetic voice: its passions, its peculiar energy, its exuberance and humor. Contrary to what seems a pervasive critical response to his work, Stern is not a contemporary version of Walt Whitman. His voice is lonelier, more independent, closer to the bone. It sweeps readers along in its self-questioning, and fundamental, urgency. It manages to speak movingly for something larger than itself without pretending to speak for everyone’s lives.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. June 21, 1992, p. 107.

Choice. XXX, October, 1992, p. 302.

The Georgia Review. XLVI, Fall, 1992. p. 554.

Library Journal. CXVII, March 15, 1992, p. 92.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 13, 1992,p. 15.

Poetry. CLXI, November, 1992, p. 99.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, April 27, 1992, p. 257.

Times-Picayune. April 26, 1992, p. D 19.