The first collection I ever read by Gerald Stern is Bread without Sugar. What I remember about it now is Stern's positioning of voice--that's too technical and annoying--his movement in the poem that is always marked by left and right sides. In his left hand an ache, in his right a fist of bright crocus. I love how these poems flex, in short and long lines, in great fat poems that are somehow bouyant:
"This is how I bent
my head between my knees, the channels and veins
pumping wildly, one leg freezing, one leg
on fire. That is the saxophone
and those are the symbols; when it gets up here
the roar of the waves is only a humming, a movement
back and forth, some sloshing we get used to."
Even in these few lines we see Stern's characteristic associative and nervy locomotions. Always anchored by the body, always made elegant by some mental abstraction that dramatizes large and small perspectives, always the sense of humor that weighs beauty with the grotesqueries of our mortal limitations in song. His books feel large and overwhelming, unrelenting, I go numb. It's rare that I could read straight through. They're heady, too perfumed, dizzying, narcotic. Strong.
I've been a deep, enthusiastic fan of his since that first book, and made myself studious admiring the longer poems, "Hot Dog" especially. So much so that I was shocked and bliss-hit by a few short poems in the New Yorker a few years ago--the poem "Sylvia" I immediately set out to memorize. These poems were thrilling for me because I found them surprisingly, even uncharacteristically short, though they don't lose any of Stern's gusto or sting. In his latest books, American Sonnets and Everything Is Burning, he's written some of his strongest, sharpest lyrics. Short bursting bulbs, little flowers, little suns.
His newest collection, Save the Last Dance, is a great collection that continues these short blossoms, surprising like a flock of crocus in a concrete alleyway. What I love about this book is how it flexes Stern's abilities. It begins with one of these harsh little beauties and ends with the longer poem "The Preacher", first published by Sarabande as a chapbook. In between are stout lyrics broken by longer poems of short singing couplets. The poem "Before Eating" is both fun and lovely: "Leave me alone, / I want to worry; // make me lamb chops / make me curry." This is not to say that Stern abandons any serious thought--this book is all brain: song philosophy. The first lines of the final poem, the long poem in the book, "The Preacher", are contemplative, elegaic lines that consider existence in a fashion relative to theoretical physics:
"As if the one tree you love so well and hardly
can embrace it is so huge so that with-
out it there might be a hole in the universe
explains how the killing of any one thing can
likewise make a hole except that without
its existence there was neither a hole nor not a hole"
It's true that the title to the book feels sentimental, self-indulgent. And it is! But in a serious, true manner. That poem, "Save the Last Dance for Me" is one of my favorites in the book. Stylistically it's reminiscent of poems in Stern's earlier collection "Last Blue" for the length of its lines. The poem concerns Stern's memory of saving a little Chihuahua from drowning in a sewer and being unable to remember the little dog's name:
"though he who weighed a pound
could easily fall into
the opening, such was our life
and such were our lives the last
few years before the war when
there were four flavors of ice cream
and four flavors only; I'll call him
Fatty; I'll call him Peter;
Jésus, I'll call him, but only
in Spanish, with the "h" sound,
as it is in Mexico;
Jésus, kiss me again,
Jésus, you saved me,
Jésus, I can't forget you"
. . . . . . . .
Speaking of dogs, song, and philosophy, the first poem of the book is another of my favorites:
Diogenes for me and sleeping in a bathtub
and stealing the key to the geneology room
close to the fake Praxiteles and ripping
a book up since the wrath had taken me
over the edge again and you understand
as no one else how when the light is lit
I have to do something. I couldn't hold my arm up
for nothing, I couldn't stand on the top step
barking--I'll put it this way, living in a room
two cellars down was good, I got to smell
the earth, I carried a long red wire down
with a bulb attached--after that it never mattered.
. . . . . . . .
Friends and Strangers, steal it if you can!
. . . . . . . .