Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520
“Bread Without Sugar” is a long fifteen-page poem in eight unnumbered parts that function not so much as stanzas as discrete sections (each approximately thirty to sixty lines in length). To further complicate the picture, the poem is written in memory of the poet’s father, contains an epigraph from Grace Paley (“This is what makes justice in the world—to bring these lives into the light”), and, at its conclusion, is dedicated to the writer and editor Ted Solotaroff. It is necessary to keep these three aspects in mind as the poem unfolds.
The setting for “Bread Without Sugar”—and there usually is an external setting for a Gerald Stern poem—is his father’s gravesite in Miami, and it is his father’s life that Stern wants to “bring to light.” Kneeling in wet December sand to see the headstone, the speaker travels through memory to the day of his father’s funeral; he sees the cantor, the boring rabbi, the Jewish businessmen from Newark and Flatbush who, like his father—a retired tailor and buyer—had come to Miami. He then goes back through a cross-section of his father’s life (“born in Kiev, died in Miami”), to a cross-section of his own life (memories of Pittsburgh, the “bread without sugar” he had eaten as a boy, his eventual travels), to a day in “1940 or 1941” when the family had first visited Florida. Simultaneously, the governing sensibility of the poem travels outward, embracing the whole of Jewish history, the scattered past that in the end can bring such different people together in the same place.
As the poet contemplates his somewhat strained relationship with his deceased father, what he calls an “odd vexation,” he also recounts his interaction with his aging mother and begins to wonder where he himself will be buried. He considers a variety of his favorite places, going from “country/ to country in search of a plot.” These imaginative gestures move him into what might be termed “speculative time.” Thus Stern is able not only to select several possible burial sites but also to create his death scene (hit by a taxi in Poland). His expansive imagination embraces the future: “I want/ to live with the Spanish forever. I love/ their food and I love their music; I am/ not even dead and I am speaking/ their language already; I hope their poets/ remember me.” There is a complicated mix of tenses so that chronological time becomes meaningless. In this way Stern allows himself, at least figuratively, more than one life.
Further, the poet is able to move quickly from remembered time (the family in the Charles Hotel) to his projected old age in the same hotel; he envisions himself drawing his pension, cooking on a hot plate, losing his glasses on the sand, not being able to find his towel. The poem ends with incantation, an individual prayer for the self, fully realized because of its all-inclusive, all-embracing journey through concomitant histories: “May the turtles escape/ the nets: May I find my ocean! May/ the salt preserve me! May the black clouds instruct me!”
Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510
Over the years Gerald Stern has developed an idiosyncratic voice—one that readers can recognize instantly as belonging to him alone. It is not simply conversational; it is a voice which seems to come from the most visceral center of the man: personal, engaging, spontaneous, often breaking free in impromptu associations. To read Stern is to accompany him on a sort of spiritual autobiography. This voice is not that of a confessional persona pretending to “tell all”—it does not invite or even seem to need the reader. Readers participate fully, but as bystanders. Each poem embodies a thought process—a scattering of real moments and personal connections, a twist of particular synapses, then new observation, new wiring, odd pairings that lead to more memories, more connections.
“Bread Without Sugar” proceeds on just such a circuitous associative route. The sentences seem to spill into one another, a jumble of questions and observations, punctuated by dashes and semicolons, commas linking one fleeting thought to another, one memory to its outlandish extrapolation. A good example is the section in which the speaker is thinking about the people buried near his father:
The skyis streaked tonight; I love the tropics,the orange underneath the blue; green parrotsare flying out of the sun, voicesare rising out of the ground, it must beYaglom and Sosna, those are his neighbors,And Felder and Katz; some are New Yorkers,one is from Cincinnati, onewas born in Africa, one is from Turkey—he would know grapefruit. When they singthey do it as in the movies or theydo it as if they were sitting down therein Lummus Park, on Wednesday afternoon.Schmaltz was our downfall, schmaltz was our horror,we wept on the streets or walked to the swimming poolweeping, we drove to the bakery weeping.What was it for? What did we long forso much, what had we lost?
The reader is inside the speaker’s head. The poem functions more like a meditative lyric than a narrative, yet its length allows it room to range through the father’s history, the poet’s own story, and even the ongoing saga of Jews in the Diaspora, regaining Spanish, “remembering words/ they hadn’t thought of for five hundred years.” The interest is as much in what the poet is thinking and feeling as in any “story” he might tell.
An interesting aspect of “Bread Without Sugar” is the use of the sense of smell. Each section contains some reference to a memory of a stench—seemingly brought on by a garbage dump near the cemetery in Miami. The poet’s associations are held together by smell; it crops up as a memory of a rat-strewn bakery where he had to cover his mouth as a boy, the heavy syrup of his parents’ fruit salad sundaes, the “disgusting smell” of the clinkers in the yellow cloud of air at Union Station in Pittsburgh, the burning city, pigs “rolling in shit” in Mexico, the angel who “stank from the sun,” each image just a bit more exaggerated than the last.
Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1795
Looking at his year of birth, one suddenly realizes that Gerald Stern is only a couple of years younger than James Dickey, who came to a “late” prominence in the 1960’s. More striking, he is a year older than Allen Ginsberg, who first pelted readers’ consciousness in the 1950’s and was enshrined with his Collected Poems, 1947-1980 (1984), a volume that reveals how little of Ginsberg’s poetic energy lasted beyond 1970. Then one realizes that this active and fecund poet, Stern, is not even in many anthologies, not in his place between Dickey and Ginsberg, who seem now curiously dead as working poets while Stern goes on and on, getting better and better. Like Robert Peters, he is a late-bloomer, a long-distance runner. Only in the anthologies published in the twenty-first century will Stern find his place among, the important voices of the last half of the twentieth century.
Preeminently Stern is a poet of sentiment and of a qualified nostalgia. Almost single-handedly, he gives a good name to artistic impulses that have been long out of fashion and against which weaker, less mature talents need to be warned. He is, like Saul Bellow’s fictional Herzog, a man of heart, but his sense of humor is healthier than Herzog’s. Stern’s agonizings often end in smiles, or in tears of joy. No less a realist than anyone else, Stern nevertheless conjures redemption. In a poetic style formally reminiscent of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, Stern strikes a tone that has affinities with Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud—the bittersweet cantorial voice of blissful suffering and redemptive faith.
These references to Jewish writers are not meant to suggest that Stern is to be categorized neatly and thus defined by limitation. The Jewish feeling-tones in his poems are the cultural sails of a sprightly, adaptive vessel, not its anchors. Not traditionally religious, but reflecting a schmaltzy humanism, Stern’s works add up to nothing less than the spiritual autobiography of a devout, gentle sensualist, a man whose God is in the juices of indulgence that trickle down our chins as well as in the very mysteries of appetite and deprivation that riddle human history. In his occasional clowning, Stern is no schlemiel. He does not imaginatively transform a situation to survive its pain. Indeed, Stern’s historical sense, his feeling for the past, is rooted in a knowledge that allows for little idealization. His delight in history and memory is not so much a yearning to go back as a refusal or inability to abandon.
There are some standard ways of categorizing poets, ways that Gerald Stern defies. He is a master at evoking, the urban ethos, but he is also a poet of great intimacy with natural processes and the botanical world. Sometimes he seems to be a poet of place, a regionalist, but then the place becomes places and the boundaries of time and geography vanish to leave the reader in a familiar home territory that covers much of the Western world. Most of Stern’s poems begin somewhere and reach out across space and time—the time of one’s life and the larger history that frames one’s actions and being. Poems such as “Those Things” and “Red with Pink” should not make the unified impression that they do, so various in their images and impulses, so inclusive.
One of Stern’s great talents is to give form to openness. He is a great elaborator, a writer who finds a language and cadence for the rhythms of imagination and memory, Some of his most impressive poems risk exhaustion, disintegration, or collapse. They maintain an improvisational quality, a teetering toward chaos, even while they find a permanent shape. The cohesive force is the power of personality, aided at times by the artful handling, of such Whitmanesque devices of song, as inventory, parallelism, and anaphora. Often, a strong narrative thrust is the bonding element. Stern’s poems are not, however, primarily narratives or lyrics. Granting, some leeway for Stern’s protean poem—making, we can perhaps best categorize his work as meditative.
As a meditator, Stern is a questioner. A hallmark of his rhetoric is the interrogative. As a poet of the self, Stern risks an inward-turning examination of the universe and an abrasive egocentricity. In Bread Without Sugar, as in his earlier collections, Stern avoids the uglier excesses of the inward gaze. As Peter A. Siedlecki has observed (in “Mediation of the I and the I,” found in Leonard M. Trawick’s World, Self, Poem, 1990), “all of Gerald Stern’s poetry is written both against egocentric isolation and against the cool acceptance of the perceived world.” Facing and feeling, mortality at every turn, Stern’s celebrations of human experience are not made by escapist transformations (like the schlemiel) or by passively accepting or insulating the self from harshness and tragedy. The power of his yearning, to feel his way to the end of the great questions—Why do we suffer? Should we despair? What can we truly know? What difference do we make in this universe?—is a unique dimension of Stern’s poetic vision.
Much of Stern’s writing is in the tradition of the great elegiac poetry that works toward the terms for reconciling the self to death. The occasion need not be the death of a loved one. In a poem such as “The Age of Strolling,” Stern mourns the style and
gestures of an earlier self, a youth not quite gone, a memory. Change may be growth, but it is also death: The doubleness of change, of becoming, weighs on the speaker. Seeing his youthful self positioned to absorb the world’s secrets, even to feast on its gloom, Stern realizes that each stance and each perception remade him:
When I stood there cupping my right hand
and when I looked at the barges struggling up
my river I was already changed. I spent
a lifetime doing this, grieving and arguing.
Grieving and arguing are two sides of the Stern dialectic; or, as he puts it in “Brain of My Heart,” the two voices that talk to each other and talk through him: “one is tormented, one/ is full of sappy wisdom.” In his poems, he has invented himself as a wanderer, a restless walker who might find himself among the amusing detritus of Greenwich Village, among plants and flowers he knows intimately, among the figures and stones of history. As the receiving, and responding center, Stern’s persona organizes and interprets the scenes he walks through with a stride or shuffle that aspires to dance. Stern, the poet, aspires to dance, as he tells us in “Aspiring to Music,” insisting jokingly that poetry and music are enemies.
“Two Days” is a fine example of Stern’s elegiac, meditative style and tone. Two crows—or “daws”—spur this entrancing mental play in which daws are transmuted to dawns, both true and false, and the insistence that there are two deaths. For Stern, there cannot be one of anything. One thing always leads to another; one image or experience or thought already announces the possibility of a second—and a third. There are always at least the two: the true and the false. These the restless, haranguing word-dancer can turn inside out and keep airborne, like a juggler’s pins. The poem ends:
Shouldn’t I sing then,
breathing my last, fretting, over my own death
among the other birds? And shouldn’t I sleep
like a wise man through the false dawn even if the first
thin blue is out there, even if there is a call
from one or two creatures, even if the cardinal
is making me moan, and even if the chickadee
is hanging upside down and banging his head
against the shiny glass—even if the worm
is fighting for his life and the lily of the valley
is bowing her head in shame, shouldn’t I live on?
Among the many fine poems in this, Stern’s eighth collection, is the title poem. “Bread Without Sugar” is a formal elegy, a remembrance of the poet’s father. Printed first separately in a beautiful edition from Sutton Hoo Press (1991), “Bread Without Sugar” is reminiscent of Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” though it is neither as excessively elaborated nor as self- consciously monumental. Stern’s elegy gains, perhaps, from the poet’s distance on the central event, his father having died two decades before the poem was written, though with Stern’s prodigious memory, time vanishes.
The resemblances to “Kaddish” have to do with the way both poems open out from the occasion of graveyard thoughts to become personal, familial, and cultural ruminations. From the perspective of the 1980’s, Stern recalls an event of the 1960’s that ushers in the world of his father’s generation, a generation whose neighborhoods were fixed in styles that preceded World War II and the worst years of Jewish catastrophe. Evocations of Stern’s Depression childhood fade into a Diaspora catalog and a questioning of the father’s and the son’s connection to Jewish fate: “Where should my site be? In Texas? Arizona?/ I am more scattered than my father was,/ born in Kiev, died in Miami.” This poem of astonishing detail and range is one of Stern’s major achievements, a supreme example of the questioning, associational “grieving and arguing” that is is his mighty tool for self-exploration and and affirmation. All the ways in which the speaker is scattered—the wanderings that have brought him to savor so much of this globe, the hearing and attempting its many languages, the restlessness of mind and spirit that leave no corner unturned—receive a magnificent and ultimately prayerful orchestration.
The way Stern, in “Bread Without Sugar” and elsewhere bashes together his most profound and trivial concerns (“Where would I eat—on a hot plate?”) reminds one of Arthur Miller’s notion of the modern hero defined by a constant struggle between self and self-image. Stern’s persona resembles an intellectual less guilt-or failure-ridden Willy Loman, whose free- fall Hegelian talking to himself is not a sign of deterioration but rather of constructive mastery—of establishing balance. The liberating swing into disorientation and then back to a tentative, poised resting place is the arc of Stern’s meandering and the arc of experience that the reader shares. It is a dizzying, breathless ride, and the consolation is that we want to and can hang on. Frightened, we smile.
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.