“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...
(The entire section is 520 words.)