Online Edition: Summer 2005

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Everything is Burning

Gerald Stern

W.W. Norton & Company ($23.95)

by Maureen Picard Robins

Disquieting, rattling, and turbulent verse fills the pages of Gerald Stern's latest book. Everything is Burning romps through the usual Sternian suspects: lovers (current and former), sex, wished for sex, sexual prowess, imagined sexual prowess, bad sex; paradise, pear and apple trees, birds, gardens; friends (dead and alive), music, a lost cultural world, politics, Judaism, survivor guilt, and his dead sister, Sylvia.

Stern's poetic persona, however, has evolved from that of rural groggy affection with big wet kisses, as seen in The Red Coal's "Cow Worship" ("I love the cows best when they are a few feet away,") to one which more pointedly celebrates the complexities and poignancy of human love, as in this volume's "Tenderness" ("The whole idea of tenderness, she says, / should be tried out on the redbud first, she says"). Stern, in these 65 poems, wends his way into rant, outburst, and defiance in the hope of needling some sort of epiphany.

The prosaic character of Stern's language and line has never been more freewheeling--so much so that one might imagine that these poems were dictated into a tape recorder and simply scribed: "I meant the personal and the social, / or call it the historical if you like, / I mean I meant there was a personal paradise / and there was a larger one..." ("E.P. III"). The poems ramble, stuff lines with unexplained personal references, become splotches of words that make worlds emerge whole; the reader leaves the poem with a sense of having experienced an enormous emotional range and a disorienting feel of time travel.

Emblematic of this is the poem "Never Went to Birdland." In his vestigial Yiddish inflected American English, Stern simulates that act of remembering and the inner dialogue that often accompanies it: "Never went to Birdland, so what, went to the Y, / danced all night for a quarter, girls sat down / on bridge chairs, can't remember if they were smoking..." Then he remembers a particular girl and says, "I'll call her Doris--that was her name-- / her grandfather was a rabbi from Bialystock..." The poem closes with a clear and unflinching portrait of this man, who worked to build the railroad in the Urals: "He was only / five feet tall, his hands you can't imagine / nor what the sofa was like and what our struggle was." There's the time travel in poetry that Stern pulls off.

Stern is one crafty, seasoned verse-maker, and his use of everyday speech is so disarming as to be nearly deceptive. Despite the appearance of a weak inner grammarian, he plunders meaning and achieve a rattling affect with the use of enjambment and commas to keep his beats--and his reader--off kilter.

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