The strength of Stern’s poetry comes from the intensity with which he cares about the world. He loves and hates deeply, and the reader experiences the world as Stern experiences it, at times with impulsive stress, at other times with the sensitivity of a thrush’s fluted warbling.
A Stern poem blends topics which seem at first to be heterogeneous but which cohere on the deepest level of consciousness. Keen observation of bee balm, a rose, a desert sparrow, or a sycamore tree occasions a welling up of memories of his childhood, of his travels in Pennsylvania and Crete; diverse figures are sympathetically evoked: outcasts of Poland and Russia, poets and musicians, fathers and sons, lovers.
To read a Stern poem is not to be a passive spectator or to bear witness to some frozen litany of personal failure but rather to be thrust inside the organic earth as it heaves and buckles. “I want to touch/ the thorns and see how sharp the needles are,” he says.
“Christmas Sticks” acknowledges the courage of the Polish people, who despite their tragic history sing “songs about love and regeneration.” “In Memory of W.H. Auden,” in the tradition of Auden’s own elegy for William Butler Yeats, is a deeply felt tribute to a fellow poet in which Stern comes to grips with his “laments and ecstasies.” “The Expulsion” joins a lovely description of Masaccio’s painting of Adam and Eve with tender memories of the poet’s father.
PARADISE POEMS, Stern’s fifth volume of poetry, blends the bizarre and observant in ways that, bordering on the surreal, illuminate the dynamic force that enables all natural things to find their fulfillment in a mature, individualized form. His ambition, ultimately, is nothing less than to take the measure of genesis and growth. Stern ranges between heaven and hell, returning through memory, like Dante, to discover where humanity took a wrong turn away from righteousness, how we lost paradise. The anger and compassion of Amos sanctify these poems that overview the ruins and victories of the heart and mind. One feels Stern’s poetry roll down like waters in an ever-flowing stream.