Having never read Gerald Stern’s poetry before, I took This Time: New and Selected Poems out from the library. The book won the National Book Award in 1998, and it deserves it; the poems are consistently charming, witty, disarmingly beautiful, and full of a kind of tongue-in-cheek, Eastern European wisdom and worldliness that seems part Isaac Bashevis Singer, and part Lenny Bruce. Open the book up to any page, and you find lines with a wonderfully eclectic, intellectual-curmudgeonly, brutally wild music that brings to mind the marvelously manic antics of an intelligently bawdy grandfather or sophisticated, dirty-joke telling uncle. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay the book is that it motivated me to return to my own practice of writing poetry – one of the best tests I have found for the worth of a book of poems.
I’m beginning this review with praise, because I found Stern’s latest book, In Beauty Bright, interesting as an experiment in form, but somewhat disappointing. The poems are much less punctuated than those in This Time; also, the majority of poems in In Beauty Bright comprise one breathlessly unwinding sentence. Yet it isn’t clear to me why Stern opted for this quirky formal challenge. The poems indeed feel breathless – one feels oneself working to catch up with the poem, to find oneself in the un-comma’d pauses, to locate one’s feet in the burrows of the meter – and yet it is not a breathlessness akin to W.S. Merwin’s whisper, where silence creeps into the pauses to lend much of his poems an eerie, Dickinsonian motionlessness.
Stern has been compared to Whitman, which I think is right, but these late poems do not feel exuberant so much as quietly nostalgic, and this at times jars disconcertingly with the breathless pace with which they introduce themselves and perform. Stern has a certain tender toughness that reminds me of Philip Levine, and his interest in surrealism also suggests some of Levine’s earlier work. Yet Levine, in his late work, deepens into a kind of urban Keats, without losing the toughness. Stern’s poems, at least here, do not suggest such a deepening, but rather casually shuffle across the page with their characteristic whimsy and celebration of human foibles. Yet sometimes they seem to err on the side of toughness, and other times on the side of tenderness.
At their best, they suggest a man on a bench, in coat and hat, feeding pigeons, who, upon entering into a conversation with you, regales you with fascinating, sad, moving and funny stories about his life. At their worst, they suggest the same man snoozing loudly and gutturally on the bench.
My favorite poem in the book was a longer poem called “Two Graces,” though still one breathless sentence, in which Stern re-imagines the two mythological graces as two very Stern-esque intellectuals, Emma Goldmans of 86th street or Eleanor Roosevelts of Central Park. It begins,
There were three but two were all I knew
and one was at least a head taller and if
their writing was different they came from different sides
of the same mountain or for that matter a street,
and it was as if the one sang low and the other
shrieked almost but that wasn’t true they both
either hummed or sang soprano “Deep River” and ate
a fish soup there on the corner, and one of the two
grew up in the Bronx and one on 86th street
not far from Central Park, and one was a free-
thinker of the kind in Union Square
they stood on boxes with a flag protecting them
and one went to a progressive school and studied
Scotch-Irish songs by traveling through the mountains
on a bike and visiting schools and jails
Notice the interesting jump between the eleventh and twelfth lines, where you’d expect a period after “Square.” I like this jump; it suggests a restlessness, a cranky need just to spit out the story, which fits well with Stern’s persona, as if he were saying, “Look, I’m 87 years old. What do you want from me? They ate fish soup, and that’s that.” One can be forgiven for wishing that this acclaimed octogenarian, however, might have invested more of his poems with such an urgency.
One more example. Here is “Rage,” a shorter poem, which, by its very title and form, would suggest a certain exigency – a needfulness to deliver, in its short time and term, a packed punch of pithiness, something to keep our attention pressed up against the poem, following its windings, moves, jolts, surprises. Here’s the poem:
I lost my rage while helping a beetle recover
and stood there with precision, balancing
grass with stone and lifted my stick to show
how dirt holds us up and what is indifferent and what
their music could be and what the whistling train,
according to childhood and ecstatic age.
The poem conveys a certain insouciance, a cultivated laziness, which is risky – one wishes to be seen as freewheeling, perhaps, but obviously not as boring. Yet this poem is, sadly, boring.
It doesn’t matter if the moment upon which the poem is premised seems insignificant – a strong poem can make even the insignificant seem significant. For example, Williams:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
What “Rage” is missing is that “so much depends.” It’s missing that close investigative scrutiny of words that makes a poem a living object. Of course, I’m pretty much preaching to the choir, for Stern can be a marvelous poet. But too many times, in In Beauty Bright, he misses the mark.