Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7029
Unlike the poems of many of his contemporaries, those of Gerald Stern explode upon the reader’s attention with high and impassioned rhetoric. The poems seem to tumble forward like trees in a flood, snaring, collecting, and finally sweeping subject matter one would have thought only peripherally connected to the main thrust. By using an engaging conversational tone, combined with the frequent use of repetition to sweep together myriad details, Stern’s poems display a direct link to the poetics of Walt Whitman. Moreover, a psalmist’s zest for parallelism and anaphora discloses a debt to biblical poetry and reinforces the pervasively spiritual, specifically Jewish, sensibility of Stern’s work. His frequent use of surrealistic images, meanwhile, reveals a debt to twentieth century Spanish poets, and his love of humble specifics shows him to be a descendant of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. The poems are, among other things, evidence of an immense curiosity about life set against the depersonalizing matrix of twentieth century history.
Eschewing the drift toward, on one hand, hermeticism, and, on the other, the poetry of confession, Stern’s poems, by capitalizing on many of the features of “open” poetry (in various of its historical incarnations), have shown a way for poetry to become equal to the task of transforming both memory and modern history into art. Stern’s poetic is both stimulating and eminently suitable for representing and interpreting the variety of American life in a way that encompasses both the tragic and the humorous in its fabric.
Rejoicings announces most of the themes and much of the style of Stern’s subsequent, better-known work. Already present are the tutelary spirits who people his later poems and the tension between his love of “high” culture as represented by various philosophers and poets, all heroes of the intellect and art, and his yearning for spontaneity and the “natural,” represented by home-grown resources, as in “Immanuel Kant and the Hopi”:
I am going to write twenty poems about my ruined country, Please forgive me, my old friends,I am walking in the direction of the Hopi!I am walking in the direction of Immanuel Kant!I am learning to save my thoughts—likeone of the Dravidians—so that nothing willbe lost, nothing I tramp upon, nothing Ichew, nothing I remember.
While holding most of the Western intellectual tradition in high respect, Stern equally holds its neglect of emotion, intuition, and experience to be responsible for much of the misery to which human beings are taught to accommodate themselves. Thus, many of the poems in the collection have an aspect of unlearning about them, even as they continue to extol the finer mentors of Western tradition. Others look for a “third” way somehow to be negotiated between the mind/body dichotomy, as in “By Coming to New Jersey”:
By coming to New Jersey I have discovered the third worldthat hangs between Woodbridge Avenue and Victory Bridge.It is a temporary world,full of construction and water holes,full of barriers and isolated hydrants . . .
The “third world” of experience is one to which he will return again and again, finding it populated with all the things that are of little consequence to the heave of civilization: birds, flowers, weeds, bugs, and the like, as well as human detritus—the junkyards of America, superseded and yet everywhere visible as testimonials to other dimensions of life.
Although Stern had been publishing steadily for many years, the publication in 1977 of Lucky Life proved to be a watershed in his career. Expansive and ebullient, slyly melodramatic and hyperbolic (whether depicting the tragic, the nostalgic, or the mundane) but always wonderfully readable, the poems appeared during a period when the loose aesthetic of the 1960’s had been exhausted, and the predictable return to formalism was just getting under way. The book seemed in some ways to partake of neither, though this is only a partial truth, for the poems are certainly more informed by the openness of the 1960’s than by the subsequent swing the other way. By reaching back, through Whitman, to the psalmists, and imbuing the various techniques of poetic repetition with a dizzying parade of disjunctive images, emotional outbursts, jeremiads, and tender soliloquies, Lucky Life seemed to point the way to a new kind of democratic poetry, a kind of Whitman modernized and extended: “I am going to carry my bed into New York City tonight/ complete with dangling sheets and ripped blankets;/ I am going to push it across three dark highways/ or coast along under 600,000 faint stars.”
Just as Whitman found American possibility teeming in New York, Stern, a century and a half later, locates it in the moral imperative to preserve its authentic and unrepeatable artifacts (as well as the national character that went into making them), as in “Straus Park”:
if you yourself go crazy when you walk through the old shellon Stout’s Valley Road,then you must know how I felt when I saw Stanley’s Cafeteriaboarded up and the sale sign out
To this he opposes “California,” that state of mind “with its big rotting sun”: “—Don’t go to California yet!/ Come with me to Stanley’s and spend your life/ weeping in the small park on 106th Street.” California is not a state of mind but a fact of life—to some, an ideal (to the poet, the wrong one). Still, it is possible to carry some of Stanley’s memories even to California: “Take the iron fence with you/ when you go into the desert./ . . . / Do not burn again for nothing./ Do not cry out again in clumsiness and shame.”
The feeling for nostalgic way stations, for what, in a more somber locution, is sometimes called tradition, informs the poet’s subject matter in a personal but dynamic way that is nevertheless always under threat by the rise of anonymity, conformity, and the pervasiveness of substitutes. These poems, then, are atavistic expressions of grief and longing for the return of the authentic: “What would you give for your dream/ to be as clear and simple as it was then/ in the dark afternoons, at the old scarred tables?” (from “Stepping Out of Poetry”). Characteristically, the poet often identifies this longing and grief with his Jewishness, as when he stops to examine road kill in “Behaving Like a Jew”: “I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death./ I am going to behave like a Jew/ and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,/ and pull him off the road.” Led by a detour to a dilapidated coffeehouse called (the poem’s title) “This Is It” (“the first condemned building in the United States”), the poet talks to its owner, a “coughing lady,” and commiserates with her over the collapse of the neighborhood. He listens to the stories of her youth, about her dog “and its monotonous existence,” and proclaims, “Everyone is into my myth! The whole countryside/ is studying weeds, collecting sadness, dreaming/ of odd connections.”
Sometimes, Stern begins his nostalgia on an ironic note before devolving into seriousness, as in “If You Forget the Germans”:
If you forget the Germans climbing up and down the Acropolis,then I will forget the poet falling through his rotten floor in New Brunswick;and if you stop telling me about your civilization in 1400 b.c.,then I will stop telling you about mine in 1750 and 1820 and 1935.
After such playful give-and-take, the poet shifts key: “Here are the thoughts I have had;/ here are the people I have talked to and worn out;/ here are the stops in my throat.” The real theme—the search for happiness amid the ubiquity of details and through the murderous lurch of time—is discovered in a journey into the poet’s own typically broken past, narrated in a mock travelogue (“If you go by bus . . .”). However, after a series of perplexing directions, he admonishes, “Do not bury yourself outright in the litter.” Instead, he says, in an ending that finds echoes in Christian liturgy:
Sing and cry and kiss in the ruined dining roomin front of the mirror, in the plush car seat,a 1949 or ’50, still clean and perfectunder the black dust and the newspapers,as it was when we cruised back and forth all night looking for happiness;as it was when we lay down and loved in the old darkness.
Happiness is the subject of the title poem: “Lucky life isn’t one long string of horrors/ and there are moments of peace, and pleasure, as I lie in between the blows.” With age and the accretions of scars and memories, happiness becomes more problematic: “Each year I go down to the island I add/ one more year to the darkness;/ and though I sit up with my dear friends . . ./ after a while they all get lumped together.” Announcing that “This year was a crisis,” the poet lumbers through memories of past vacations, through dreams of getting lost on South Main Street in a town in New Jersey, of looking for a particular statue of Christopher Columbus, of sitting at a bar listening to World War II veterans, then dreams of himself sitting on a porch “with a whole new set of friends, mostly old and humorless.” There follows a burst of apostrophes: “Dear Waves, what will you do for me this year?/ Will you drown out my scream?/ Will you let me rise through the fog?” The poem ends:
Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.Lucky the waves are cold enough to wash out the meanness.Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
The Red Coal
With the publication of The Red Coal in 1981, some critics believed that Stern had fallen into self-imitation and saw the poems as mannered in their style and sometimes bombastic in their treatment of subject matter. For example, the critic for The New York Times Book Review asserted, “In poem after poem he sets up for himself some temptation over which he wins a lyrical triumph. The invariability with which he clears those hurdles makes one suspect that the fences have been lowered.” A dissenting view, however, would simply note that, in a poem, all triumphs are “lyrical,” for in what sense could they be “actual”? Perhaps the insinuation of repetition is the more damaging. Although it is true that Stern’s poems offer little in the way of stylistic variation, their range is impressive.
Simply to list the place-names and people who gather to Stern’s poems like flocking birds is to suggest the presence of a poet with wide cultural affinities and concerns. Although all the figures and places could, with skepticism, be seen as a form of name-dropping, it is more likely that they play a totemic role, suggesting whole ranges of other experience anterior to the specific subject matter. Nicolaus Copernicus, Isaac Stern, Jascha Heifetz, Emma Goldman, Eugene V. Debs, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Casimir Pulaski, Galileo, Albert Einstein, Fyodor Dostoevski, Guillaume Apollinaire, Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, Thomas Jefferson, Gustave Flaubert, Wyndham Lewis, Maurice Ravel, Aleksandr Nikolayevich Scriabin, Antonio Vivaldi, Eugene O’Neill, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—all these and many more haunt the poems like figures in a pantheon.
As for the kind of mind necessary for the poet’s—and, by extrapolation, modern humanity’s—survival, Stern compares a model of Galileo’s to one of his own in a poem intriguingly titled “I Remember Galileo”: “I remember Galileo describing the mind/ as a piece of paper blown around by the wind,/ and I loved the sight of it sticking to a tree/ or jumping into the back seat of a car.” At first, he says he watched paper “for years,” as if to test the adequacy of the metaphor, but “yesterday I saw the mind was a squirrel caught crossing/ Route 60 between the wheels of a giant truck.” The squirrel escapes, but not before “his life [was] shortened by all that terror.” The poet decides that “Paper will do in theory,” but the alert, capable squirrel, “his whole soul quivering,” finishes his mad scramble across the highway and escapes up his “green ungoverned hillside.”
Such seizures and terror, often encountered in retrospect, are usually made over to the poet’s advantage, as in “The Red Coal,” the title poem, whose central image (most likely derived from the biblical story of the infant Moses, who chose Pharaoh’s tray of burning embers over a tray of rubies) presides like a second sun over the poet’s difficult but intellectually and spiritually formative years traveling with his friend, the poet Jack Gilbert:
I didn’t live in Paris for nothing and walkwith Jack Gilbert down the wide sidewalksthinking of Hart Crane and Apollinaireand I didn’t save the picture of the two of usmoving through a crowd of stiff Frenchmenand put it beside the one of Pound and Williamsunless I wanted to see what coals had doneto their lives too . . .
The incandescent coal represents the yearning for knowledge, “as if knowledge is what we needed and now/ we have that knowledge.” On the other hand, the coal almost certainly guarantees pain for those who would be its avatars: “The tears are . . . what, all along, the red coal had/ in store for us.” However, the tears are not the result of futility or disappointment; they are the liquid registers of experience as it imposes itself on time, the baffling sea change of the body and mind that puts even the most familiar past at a strange remove: “Sometimes I sit in my blue chair trying to remember/ what it was like in the spring of 1950/ before the burning coal entered my life.”
Many of the poems in The Red Coal cast a backward look over the poet’s life, coming to terms with the effects of his commitment, “getting rid of baggage,/ . . . finding a way to change, or salvage, my clumsy life” (from “Here I Am Waiting”). That clumsiness, that self-estrangement, appropriately finds an equivalence, and hence an inward dialogue, with the lowly and dishonored things of the world, from weeds and animals (including insects and spiders) to Emma Goldman inveighing against the tyranny of property and the injustice toward winos whose lives the bright and aggressive world has cast aside. Such pity and commiseration are particularly strong in Stern and at times take on a marked spiritual coloring. In “The Poem of Liberation,” the poet observes a large “vegetable garden planted in the rubble/ of a wrecked apartment house, as if to claim/ the spirit back before it could be buried/ in another investment of glass and cement.” In “Dear Mole,” the title animal is compared to John Ruskin, “always cramming and ramming, spluttering in disgust/ . . . always starting over,/ his head down, his poor soul warbling and wailing.” A monkey appears in “For Night to Come”:
All morning we lieon our backs, holding hands, listening to birds,and making little ant hills in the sand.He shakes a little, maybe from the cold,maybe a little from memory,maybe from dread.
As the day passes, they “watch the stars together/ like the good souls we are,/ a hairy man and a beast/ hugging each other in the white grass.”
Between his 1981 collection The Red Coal and the 1984 Paradise Poems, Stern published a book-length dramatic poem, Father Guzman. Cast in the form of a half-demented conversation between a savvy fifteen-year-old street urchin and a Maryknoll priest—both prisoners in a South American jail—the poem is an energetic, if at times prosy, political dialogue that touches on the likes of Christopher Columbus, Simón Bolívar, and Abraham Lincoln, by way of Plato, Ovid, Tommaso Campanella, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Dante. Father Guzman, whose head has just been cracked by rifle-butts of the National Guard, sits in his cell and confronts the taunts of the Boy, a native; from the initial exchange extends an impassioned conversation of forty pages. Foulmouthed and in-the-know, the Boy begins the poem by extolling his hero (Bolívar) and his affiliation (anarchist). Father Guzman replies that in the room where he was beaten were two American police officers carrying looseleaf notebooks. He compares them with flies and suggests that their incarceration is the result of the same oppression:
You know the common flyhas 33 million microorganismsflourishing in its gut and a half billion moreswarming over its body and legs? You knowthat Bolivar left to his vice-presidentsthe tasks of pity?
Father Guzman concludes that Bolívar was “a Caesar” and “that the Mellons plan to betray the universe/ that Nelson Rockefeller was an ichneumon and/ David Rockefeller is a house fly.” This makes the Boy sit up, and, weakly suggesting that his admiration of Bolívar results from the fact that both were orphans, changes the subject to “Venus, Bolívar’s favorite goddess.” Father Guzman understands how the mythology of heroes is such that even tyrants and demagogues can appeal to the masses through the lens of “love,” a lens capable of distorting everyone equally:
but I have seen enough,of what you call love to last me a lifetime;and I have read de Rougement and Goethe,but I prefer to talk about this slumand the nature of oil capitalism . . .
The Boy, buoyed on the crest of his own puberty, continues unconcerned, by listing his “favorites”: Plato, the Ovid of Amores, the author of the Kama Sutra (“The section on plural intercourse/ really turns me on”), and other maestros of love. Father Guzman responds that he would like the Boy to experience the pornographic trenches of New York (“you would love New York City”). He admits that he, too, “wanted to burn [his] seed . . . to die!”: “What Raleigh fought for, what the insane Spaniards/ dreamed of for a lifetime. I saw the/ issue of their violent quest.” The Boy shifts again (“There is true love in the universe, you know that!/ Think of Dante! Think of the Duke of Windsor”) but demurs and admits, “you I love more than my own flesh and blood.”
In the second section, Father Guzman asks the Boy, “Why is life/ a joke to you?” The Boy replies that he would simply like to go for a swim and forget about history. Father Guzman interjects: “Listen to me! Without a dream you’d die!/ This slime of ours would fill/ the whole world!” The Boy says that his dream is to live “without misery and sickness and hunger.” Father Guzman turns the talk to utopias and Campanella’s La cittá del sole (1602; The City of the Sun, 1637), saying that he “worship[s] his spirit,” but concedes that he does not like “the Caesar Complex . . ./ and all that control, in industry, education, and art,/ control of the mind, even of the heart.” The Boy characteristically focuses on the control of the heart and exclaims, “I hate policemen! I can’t stand them/ looking at you as if they knew/ what you already had in your pockets.” Father Guzman wonders why, “in the whole history of the world/ there have never been two months of kindness?” and steers the talk to his admiration of Charles Fourier, “one of the true madmen of love/ and one of the great enemies of repression.” The Boy asks Father Guzman what he believes in, and Guzman replies, “my heart is still old-fashioned and I want/ people to be happy in a world I recognize . . ./ . . . where souls can manage a little . . ./ without shaming themselves in front of the rats and weasels.”
In section 3, the Boy puts on a dress and convincingly impersonates Father Guzman’s former lover, who explains that she left him “when I saw your sadness and confusion.” Dramatizing the ritual in painful detail, the Boy concludes, “There’s nothing sadder than talking to the dress.” They then act out an exchange between the American ambassador (Guzman) and the president (the Boy). The talk then turns to El Dorado. “Gomez” admits that there is no El Dorado but asserts that the dream is nevertheless a good one because it is idealistic, a kind of Holy Grail. The “Ambassador” explains that in North America there is no such dream and consequently the jails are “like hotels”: “. . . They sit there,/ all those priests and rabbis, weeping/ in the hallways, lecturing the police.”
“Gomez” shows his machismo by describing tortures that he has invented and tries to justify the graft and nepotism he has installed in his country when the Boy breaks through: “I can’t do it! I quit!” Guzman concurs, “I don’t know how we started in the first place.” The pair play one more charade, with Father Guzman playing the part of Columbus: “I challenge anyone on horseback or foot/ to deny my rights to take this place by force.” “Columbus” tells the Boy that he can bring him more than he has ever dreamed. The Boy claims not to understand the meaning of Columbus and wonders if in his cynicism he has been too hard on his country: “After all,/ we’ve changed, haven’t we?” Exhausted by the heat of their encounter, the Boy begins to think of exile, and Father Guzman recommends New York: “Brooklyn’s the place for you! I understand/ Flatbush is having a comeback. You could go/ either to Brooklyn College or N.Y.U.” The poem ends with both prisoners looking at a star, and Father Guzman makes the comment, “Campanella is probably washing himself/ in the flames. Dante is probably/ explaining the sweetness to Virgil.” The Boy replies, “It is a beautiful night. Life is still good./ And full of pleasure—and hope—”
Despite the unconvincing precocity of the Boy and Father Guzman’s pervasive profanity, both in thought and in speech, the poem manages to dramatize most of Stern’s previous themes: love of pleasure and exploration (as symbolized by poets and philosophers), the striving for justice, sympathy for the downtrodden, and hatred of exploitation and greed, especially that which is institutionalized by politics. It is a bold essay into history, poetry, and psychology, and though one can hear the poet’s private voice coming through at times, it marks a welcome change from the Whitman-like first-person poems that so markedly characterize his earlier work.
In Paradise Poems, Stern works to bring his poems to a higher rhetorical pitch and, frequently, a longer format. A deeper, more elegiac strain runs through the poems, and the most notable poems are formal elegies for poets W. H. Auden (“In Memory of W. H. Auden”) and Gil Orlovitz (“At Jane’s”), the Yiddish actor Luther Adler (“Adler”), the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (“Kissing Stieglitz Goodbye”), and the poet’s father (“The Expulsion”). In the elegy for Auden, the younger Stern plays Caliban to Auden’s Prospero, as he waits outside for Auden’s “carved face to let me in,” hoping, like all young poets, to get the master’s nod but realizing “that I would have to wait for ten more years/ or maybe twenty more years for the first riches/ to come my way, and knowing that the stick/ of that old Prospero would never rest/ on my poor head. . . .” Though Auden is “dear . . . with his robes/ and his books of magic,” Stern understands that “I had to find my own way back, I had to/ free myself, I had to find my own pleasure/ in my own sweet cave, with my own sweet music.”
By contrast, “At Jane’s” sets the death of the impoverished and neglected poet Orlovitz against Stern’s rising success. Orlovitz’s death in a New York City street is portrayed as a stylish exit, adding a note of poignancy to his loss: “He fell in the street/ in front of a doorman; oh his death was superb,/ the doorman blew his whistle, Orlovitz climbed/ into a yellow cab, he’d never disappoint/ a doorman.”
Stern, meanwhile, finds himself “brooding a little . . ./ saying inside/ one of Orlovitz’s poems/ going back again/ into the cave.” Later, in a contrapuntal image of American-style safety and success, Stern finds himself among the tea-and-chatter of inconsequential, provincial literary life: “I wore my black suit for the reading, I roared/ and whispered through forty poems, I sat like a lamb/ in a mayor’s living room, I sat like a dove/ eating cheese and smiling, talking and smiling. . . .”
“The Expulsion” alludes to the expulsion from the Garden into history and memory. The paradise here is the “paradise of two,” father and son. The expulsion also means coming to terms with the fact and significance of mortality. Stern’s father has lived the exile of countless immigrants: memories of the old country, the myriad adjustments and new fittings needed for life in America, the striving for success, and then death—almost a cliché—in Florida. It is, in many ways, a typical life, yet it is horrifyingly disjunctive, with so many losses trailing after it, that death itself is somewhat anticlimactic: “He had/ fifty-eight suits, and a bronze coffin; he lay/ with his upper body showing, a foot of carpet.” However, this life partakes of a paradise that is revealed only with the father’s passing: “My father/ and I are leaving Paradise, an angel/ is shouting, my hand is on my mouth.” That paradise will now become a fixture of memory and art, a fertile and yet minatory place:
Our lives are merging, our shoesare not that different. The angel is rushing by,her lips are curled, there is a coldness, evena madness to her, Adam and Eve are roaring,the whole thing takes a minute, a few seconds,and we are left on somebody’s doorstep . . .
Already this paradise is becoming “the secret rooms, the long and brutal corridor/ down which we sometimes shuffle, and sometimes run.”
The universality of exile is the theme of “The Same Moon Above Us,” perhaps the most interesting poem in the collection. Here, the figure of Ovid, whose exile from Rome began a literary tradition that modern poets as different as Osip Mandelstam and Derek Walcott have found resonant with significance, is superimposed on the figure of a bum, “a man sleeping over the grilles” of New York. The point is to transform the exile into something triumphant, which these poets, to the greater glory of art, were able to do and which the bum, in his way, must also do: “The truth is he has become his own sad poem.” When Stern writes “I think in his fifties he learned a new language/ to go with the freezing rain,” one does not know whether this refers to the bum or to Ovid. There is no confusion, however, for the harder one looks at the bum struggling among the garbage, the more Ovid comes into view, and vice versa. The poem is a haunting meditation on displacement and survival by transformation, no doubt the chief theme of this century’s most valued poetry.
Although Stern has never been bashful about either his ecstasies or his laments, Lovesick explicitly sustains both categories, as the triple pun in the title suggests: that love brings to people’s attention the priority of life (that is, prior to all, including poetry); that the full acknowledgment of that life by means of people’s love of it can become a burden—although a blessed one; and that the poet is not afraid to reiterate the “luck” attendant on these seeming truisms. Stern’s poems frequently hint that the difference between truisms and the truth is often a matter of perspective, with the twentieth century unfortunately specializing in conversions of the latter into the former. This attention to perspective further suggests the pervasive nostalgia for an Old World sensibility, through which the thought of his poems often loops on its way to the subject.
The volume, indeed, begins with a revisionist point of view toward a familiar subject, a dead dog (“The Dog”). The “speaker” is the dog—a persona unattempted by most contemporary poets, though Philip Levine and Thom Gunn come to mind—who moreover negotiates its soliloquy posthumously. Thus, Stern has set forth a potentially bathetic situation that he neatly escapes by turning the tables on the curiosity seeker, who is both the reader (and, by allusion, the speaker in “Behaving Like a Jew”) by exposing anthropomorphism for what it is: an attempted escape from people’s obligation to love the world by coopting it in their own (linguistic) image. Thus, the dog is both knowing and superior, for it can rely on no such escape:
I hope the dog’s waydoesn’t overtake him, one quick pushbarely that, and the mind freed, something else,some other thing, to take its place.
The dog’s ploy is to ask for a mutual recognition: “great loving stranger, remember/ the death of dogs . . . give me your pity./ How could there be enough?” In doing so, it questions the sophisticated reader’s learned disposition to exclude whole categories of emotion by grossly and obtusely dismissing them as “sentimental.” This is not to say that Stern wishes to give sentimentality, as it were, a second chance. Rather, his poems serve as ironic reminders that the objects of rationality have taken more than their share of an intensity originally meant for emotion. This is the “pity” that people “naturally” assign to objects of rationality.
By “pity,” with its moral overtones, the reader is also meant to understand sympathy—or, in Keatsian terms, “negative capability.” As with John Keats, Stern’s sympathy extends to the nonhuman kingdoms of plant and animal. In fact, Stern may be said to start there, since it is all the more a matter of sympathy to transcend human limitations to celebrate the virtues of the truly “other.” In “Bob Summers’ Body,” Stern conveys this same feeling toward another kind of otherness, as he watches the corpse of a friend being cremated:
He turned over twiceand seemed to hang with one hand to the railingas if he had to sit up once and screambefore he reached the flames.
Seeing death in terms of life has the advantage of emboldening people so that thoughts of it do not “make cowards of us all,” as Hamlet imagined. In Stern’s revision, “there is such horror/ standing before Persephone with a suit on,/ the name of the manufacturer in the lining.” Such horror has its humor, too, for humor often follows from a rearrangement of perspective. In the end, though, the death is a “plush darkness,” not only naturalized but humanized as well—one might even argue, “accessorized,” thanks to the cozy adjective “plush.” A similar fellow-feeling arises in “This Was a Wonderful Night,” in which the poet appears to indulge in innocent, fanciful conversations and matter-of-fact pastimes, until it is clear that all the principal figures with whom the poet interacts are dead:
This was a wonderful night. I heard the Brahmspiano quintet, I read a poem by [Freidrich] Schiller,I read a story, I listened to Gloomy Sunday.No one called me, I studied the birthday poemof Alvaros de Campos.
Nevertheless, the poet is happy to be “singing/ one or two songs . . . going east and west/ in the new country, my heart forever pounding.”
The motion of Lovesick, in spite of the trademark forays into the past and into the dimension of the other, is an ascending one, culminating in one of Stern’s best poems, “Steps.” This poem serves, as well, as the final entry in Leaving Another Kingdom, a volume that brings together substantial portions of each of Stern’s first five books. Here the poet remembers, and cites his body as testimony to (“I gasp and pant as if I were pulling a mule”), the fact of steps (as well as actual steps) whose climbing took their toll (“The thing about climbing/ is how you give up”) in order to return the fact of elevation:
I gave up on twenty landings,I gave up in Paris once, it was impossible,you reach a certain point, it is precise,you can’t go further; sometimes it’s shameful, you’re inthe middle of a pair of stairs, you bowyour head. . . .
Remembering steps in Pittsburgh, in Greece, in West Virginia, and elsewhere, the poet knows that the climb, in spite of its real and allegorical exactions, is the only path to the empyreal:
Imagine Zeusin West Virginia, imagine the temple to Herain Vandergrift, P. A. My heart is resting,my back feels good, my breathing is easy. I thinkof all my apartments, all that climbing; I reachfor a goldenrod, I reach for a poppy. . . .
The image of the poppy (which the poet chews in the poem’s final line) confers a feeling of restfulness, and serves as a kind of general benediction for the lovesickness, for “the hands/ that held the books, and the face that froze, and the shoulders/ that fought the wind, and the mouth that struggled for air” (“All I Have Are the Tracks”).
Bread Without Sugar
Bread Without Sugar justifiably raised Stern’s reputation a few more notches. He assured his place as a great poet of sentiment and of a qualified nostalgia. Not traditionally religious, his poems continue to express a schmaltzy humanism even while the central persona remains a devout sensualist. He is a great elaborator who finds a language and cadence for the rhythms of imagination and memory. He is a constant questioner and yet a thinker, too. Grieving and arguing are two sides of the Stern dialectic. In “Brain of My Heart,” two voices talk to each other and talk through him: “one is tormented/ one is full of sappy wisdom.” This kind of cheerful self-deflation is part of the continuing Stern charm.
The volume’s title poem is a formal elegy, a remembrance of the poet’s father that is reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” though it is neither as excessively elaborated nor as self-consciously monumental. It opens out, grandly, from the occasion of the graveyard thoughts to offer personal, familial, and cultural ruminations. Unexpected juxtapositions give the poem energy, tension, and wonder.
Everything Is Burning
Although Stern’s earlier poems often drew their energy from mysterious conjunctions of the present moment and the remembered past, the power of remembrance gains in power in the poet’s volumes issued after his years at the Writers’ Workshop. Everything Is Burning, published a decade after his retirement, appears to take stock of a life full of sensory absorption and the literary transformation of experience. The sense of full engagement with life, which he sometimes expresses with profane exuberance, remains a vital part of his poetry in this important collection. This becomes especially apparent when Stern allows his politics to come to the fore, as for example in “The Trent Lott, The MacNamara Blues,” a short poem in which the poet’s anger leads him to conjure up acts of contrition he wishes the world might witness from erring politicians.
This sense of direct involvement also fills poems such as “The Tie,” in which Stern’s life within the writing community preoccupies his reflective spirit. The opening lines suggest the poem has been snipped out of a longer conversation: “The other time I wore a tie my friend Mark/ had called me that Berrigan had died. . . .” The idea of wearing a tie conjures up memories of attending the funeral, and of the writers, friends, and acquaintances in attendance—and of how the tie changed him: “the tie alone gave such a look of dignity/ and even stiffened my neck when it came to lowlife/ poets and painters, dozens of whom were there/ filling up the pews. . . .” Stern’s poem, which on the surface seems to do no more than express a random memory brought to mind by a piece of clothing, provides one of those rare moments in which the poet allows the reader to see into the mind of the writer self-conscious of his status. At the same time, it offers evidence of the tribute he was making to poet Ted Berrigan: for Stern “. . . stopped in/ a Goodwill to buy the tie and a jacket . . . ,” an effort that separates him from the “lowlife.”
Also full of appraisal, criticism, and self-awareness are the three short poems “E. P. I,” “E. P. II,” and “E. P. III,” in which he deals directly with the effects of Pound on his life and thoughts. He begins with a blanket statement that manages to convey, insofar as these are poems referring to one of the most controversial figures of twentieth century literature, a sense of benevolent judgment: “Nothing matters but the quality of the affection.” Stern asserts that his admiration for Pound is far from slavish, however, by stating, “But I never trusted his/ paradise, it as too literary, nor his/ final confession, nor what he said to Ginsberg—,” and by calling Pound a “lying master.” That Pound’s influence was pivotal in Stern’s life is suggested in “E. P. II,” describing the memorial event Stern organized at a community college after Pound’s death. In “E. P. III,” Stern returns to his comment about Pound’s paradise and seems sympathetic to the older poet’s dreams and ideas, to the point of invoking his spirit: “beauty was/ not only difficult, it was impossible, meester/ Pound, for Europe was poisoned. How you like Europe/ now? How you like Dubya? Wyoming hath need of thee.”
Save the Last Dance
In Save the Last Dance, Stern’s increasing tendency to veer toward reflective meditation on the past comes to the fore. Although the lyricism, humor, and sense of emotional immediacy remain, the focus on loss and absence give these poems a distinct piquancy. Much of Stern’s attention remains on his literary past, his literary friends, and his literary influences. Among the most effective new poems is “Rukeyser,” which recalls “a visit with Muriel in her New York apartment,/ helping her into the kitchen, making her tea.” The poet Muriel Rukeyser is under the care of a nurse, and their meeting is brief. Stern’s visit is inspired by his devotion not only to the frail Rukeyser, as a person, but also to the practice of poetry itself. What he acquires during the visit, however, is a sharpened sense of fleeting time and a pronounced sense of loss that is directed both outwardly to Rukeyser and inwardly to himself. Stern’s other poems inspired by memories of poets include “Wordsworth” and “Lorca,” inspired by literary rather than personal memory. Of particular note is “One Poet,” a poem written in tribute to an unnamed poet, which seems to have been written out of the sense of frustration at gazing backward on a lost opportunity that cannot be forgotten. “I wanted to tell him that I read his book,” he writes, “but I couldn’t tell him that/ nor did I ever write, since I lost his/ letter. . . .” Although several of Stern’s most effective works express his responses to the poets who came before him, “One Poet” is exceptional in its recognition of the emotional need to express what could not be said at the time. The failure may have not mattered to the “One Poet” but had enduring importance to the one who failed to speak.
In contrast, the title poem, “Save the Last Dance for Me,” combines the senses of recovery and loss. The poet recalls a moment of small triumph when, at age twelve, he rescued a chihuahua that had fallen into a sewer. In this and other poems, Stern’s recollections of failure or triumph do not render him helpless, as a merely passive viewer of the past. He makes decisions and is aware even of the possibilities for invention, as is made clear in “Traveling Backwards.” In this short poem, Stern states that to go backward in time offers him no difficulties. The means by which he goes backward, however, creates the tempting opportunity to change matters: “for here is the brain and with it I have relived/ one thing after another but I am wavering/ at only reliving. . . .”
“The Preacher,” a longer work that ends the volume, combines similar reflections with a dialogue between Stern and Peter Richards. The two poets dwell on “holes” of all kinds and also on the biblical figure of “the Preacher,” the speaker in the book of Ecclesiastes. Although interesting in its conversational wanderings and insights, “The Preacher” captures little of the lucid brightness of Stern’s other works. The heart of the book is contained in his short, lyrical meditations on absence and memory.
Stern’s has been one of the more refreshing voices to emerge in American poetry since the 1960’s, a voice neither too refined to proclaim its ecstasies nor too decorous to lament its sorrows. Sorrow and ecstasy are, after all, the two horizons of emotional exchange, but they are all too frequently bred or shouldered out of existence by the daily grind, and Stern, a historian of emotions, has clearly sought, throughout his career, to restore them. Because his poems are impatient with limitation, it is perhaps tempting to regard them as the enemies of restraint—restraint by which many believe the gears of civilized life are oiled. One must consider, however, that the battle between freedom and restraint is an ancient contest, and the struggle will doubtless persist as long as human beings exist. Stern’s importance will not be decided on the basis of his beliefs but on the strength of his art. The literary son of Whitman yet his own man, Stern has produced an instrument capable of intimating, as perhaps no other contemporary American has, the sheer fullness of life in modern times. That he has not substantially modulated this instrument may be a valid criticism. However, the persistence with which he repeats his enormous embrace of the world in poem after poem suggests a loyalty to his means that is equal to his loyalty to his vision.
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