(Ayin Press, 2022)
“I just got it,” Gerald Stern told me once about his sudden discovery of his way in poetry. It was after years spent knocking around in the obscure precincts of the poetry world. But when his second book, Lucky Life, came out in 1977, overnight Gerald Stern, a nobody, became the famous Gerald Stern. He was fifty-two, and carried on—thank God—for another forty-five years.
Ayin Press produced Gerald Stern's last book, I., not long after his death in 2022 at age ninety-seven. This handsome amplified edition of a poem first published online carries a joyful foreword by Ross Gay, a brilliant preface by Stern, and a learned afterword by Alicia Ostriker. I.—which stands for Isaiah—in many ways explores the contemporary poetics of ancient prophetic inspiration.
Though William Blake is nowhere mentioned, our most prophetic English poet offers the best perspective on the topic. In his preface to Milton, Blake derides the “stolen and perverted” writings of “Homer and Ovid” in favor of the “Sublime of the Bible” and foresees a time when the muses, “the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration.”
As a cosmopolitan learned American Jew, Stern is not quite ready to go as far as Blake in rejecting the Greek and Roman classics. Rambling, garrulous, generous, generative, joyful, and angry, he and his poems descend equally from both daughters, Memory and Inspiration. And we can see how one leads to the other in an exemplary Stern classic—“The Dancing.”
The narrative begins by evoking junk shops where he searched for a “post-war Philco” “with the automatic eye.” He never finds one, perhaps because the actual postwar Philco featured a “magic eye”—so I discovered with my nerdy research. The “magic eye” seems relevant though, because bringing imagination to memory is hardly “automatic.” It's not memory but how memory lives in his mind that makes the magic so that “The Dancing” can leap backwards freely from image to image, till he is a young man dancing in celebration with his parents in their postwar Pittsburgh kitchen:
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop—in 1945 —
in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home
of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing—in Poland and Germany—
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.
That sudden last leap—this time in space—from domestic joy to history's sorrow elicits an inspired outburst—a one line prayer and theodicy: “oh God of mercy, oh wild God.”
We want a merciful God, but what is a “wild God”? The ancient prophet Isaiah knew this dark side. He had the chutzpah to write poems in God's first person: “I form light and I create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)
This complex truth—that God is at the origin of both good and evil—is too dark for those who seek a goody-goody deity. But Stern is too stern for that stuff. Though avowedly secular, he’s close enough to the spirit of the ancient prophet to merge his I in the poem with I. But as he writes in his preface, not on behest of God: “..whatever I. does or doesn't do, it's not for the sake of, or out of fear of or knowledge of or longing for deity beard or no beard.”
Speaking of himself in the third person, as Stern does throughout the poem, “It's not that he has no sense of the sacred. He has too much. Even that ridiculous shul, even the diner, even the East River and the dilapidated buildings beyond are sacred.”
Isaiah received his prophetic mission in a sudden heavenly transport. Stern rides the 2nd Avenue bus as I. begins. But one glimpse of that “ridiculous shul” makes him press the “magic strip” to get out and contemplate.
He reads on the side of the empty condemned East End Temple a line from Isaiah. “This house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” The hopeful inscription on a condemned building makes for gloom: “now the corner is doomed / a derrick is moving up 23rd.”
Why did this image of a condemned shul pull him off the bus? My theory of images is based on the natural dreamwork I do: every image in a dream (potentially) mirrors the dreamer. Instead of looking for symbols to interpret, images are better felt as identities. This is the poet's way. Then we can understand why an eighty-two-year-old poet might have seen himself in a condemned temple with poetry written on its side.
This encounter is a moment—the word recurs in italics throughout the poem. Strung on a simple narrative clothesline—the poem leaps from fits of madness and delusion to genuine moments of illumination.
After inspecting the building “he” and “I.” move across the street to the aptly named—too good to be untrue—Cosmos Diner (itself no longer on the map).
There he puts “a third packet of Splenda in his coffee / and leans on the counter to eat his arm, he starts / just below his shoulder then goes to his wrist, / then back again…” This is disturbing. We have plunged into Stern's dream mind for a strange, savage ritual.
What exactly is eating Stern? He remembers from his childhood the prohibition against Jews swallowing blood and so spits the arm blood into coffee cups. He remembers his Mom's kitchen, the kosher ritual of salted flesh, wrapped in cloth—he whips up his rage, at the sight of his own torn veins, goes thoughtfully “berserk,” then leaves the diner, and takes us down 23rd to the East River. There he sees impossible bathers in 1930s costumes—or are they 1930s refugees with suitcases—or are they “mayflies and seedpods”? The poem offers every mode of seeing: vision, delusion, observation and makes us ask: Which is madness? Which is true inspiration?
He crosses to the river edge at Greenpoint where he has one last moment. The poem ends on a declaration that “he sings loves songs now among the spiders / for he hasn't lasted 82 years for nothing.”
No he hasn't. But why does an eighty-two-year-old poet bother to write at all? The answer is Stern's perpetual dissatisfaction—the downside of constant inspiration. Because,
…he longs for a thing
he only has a thought for, he regrets now
more than ever the language he used for that thought,
the stubbornness, and lack of knowledge, how he
struggled, how he just couldn't focus, how
the words and the feelings took such a long time to come
and that is why in his eighties he does as he does
and it is blood now he thinks about for blood
is just underneath the skin and just prick it
with one of his needles and look at the meter and what
stands for meanness and what for stupidity
The meter is probably measuring blood sugar but it's also the meter of a poem—and this blood rhymes the bloodletting in the diner. A passionate poet never stops biting down on himself to get below the surface and find words with blood in them—words to match “the moment.” To someone who sees everything in the world as sacred, there's always another moment.
Opening a dialogue between himself (who he otherwise names as he) and “I.” Stern confesses the instability of his moods—“full of joy for a minute he could go from sad to happy in one fell swoop.” He notes also the resultant instability of his identity. A poet must be permeable and so almost any great voice can get into Stern and speak through him. The “he” and “I.” arise because he has “two hearts”—and "two voices one nervous with apologies.” And he can give energy to either voice “because poetry is like that.”
Sometimes he becomes not just bi- but poly-vocal.
He sprang forth from the Cosmos
he didn't just leave, he sprang forth most of the time
but this time he was Mozart and Oswald Spengler
and Samuel Coleridge...
And I. itself is unstable, morphing from the biblical prophet to A. for Abraham, C. for Cervantes, E. for Emily Dickinson.…
Stern feels intimate enough with I. to speculate about the “house of prayer for all people” as words that “I. in a moment of love in the midst of his anger whispered / or just thought it when he was eating bread and salted fish.” And as a person who swings from “berserk” “rage” and curse to joyful blessing, he wants to learn how one can find, “in the midst of anger” at a world like ours, “a moment of love.”
So Stern returns again and again to “the moment” from which poetry springs.
is what he did as he walked down 23rd
and it was spring two thousand seven and G. [God]
already forgave him now for each of his ears
were open for every roar but also his eyes
as he passed first the foundry then the derrick
and had the moment where he saw the long robe
and the roomful of wings, one of which touched his lips
as a moth does with a coal unbearable…
In this moment Stern echoes Isaiah's account of his swift heavenly ascent where he sees six-winged seraphim singing Holy Holy Holy—a prayer devoted Jews reenact in synagogue prayers, as Catholics do with their “sanctus sanctus sanctus.”
“Then,” writes Isaiah, “one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. And he touched it to my lips.” (Isaiah 6:6-7)
The moment of the “coal unbearable” outside the Cosmos was not Stern's first initiation into poetry—but
reminiscent of the other hot touches
and the dreams he had of coal when he shook the lever
and dropped the red-hot ashes into the bucket
he wrote about a half century ago
and how his mouth was ruined then
giving him his sight at last he called his birth
How can we understand divine inspiration in a secular age? Blake as a true visionary already saw the destructive energy of the dark Satanic mills at the start of the Industrial Revolution, a destruction we still live in. A Hebrew-inspired prophet himself, Blake went right to the source and interviewed his colleague Isaiah.
The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert. that God spoke to them, and whether they did not think at the time, that they would be misunderstood, and so be the cause of imposition,
Isaiah answer’d. I saw no God, nor heard any, in any finite organical perception; but my senses discover'd the infinite in every thing, and as I was then persuaded, & remain confirm'd; that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.
Then I asked: “does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so?”
He replied, “All poets believe that it does, and in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm persuasion of any thing.”
—“A Memorable Fancy” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
“I saw no God … but my senses discover’d the infinite in every thing…” This comes very close to Stern’s declaration in the preface of seeing the sacred everywhere.
The last “moment” in the poem comes at the inspiring hour of dawn. Having crossed to the Brooklyn side he sees in a patch of sunlight on the East River Isaiah's “highway” of redemption.
there wasn't one color
to speak of although the sun made a kind of highway
and it was a brilliant highway, you'd have to say sparkling
and be forgiven, and it was delineated
loved burning like that, it was the moment,
Now Stern wants “to shout something” because “he couldn't get over the freshness in spite of the paper / and bottles and piled up garbage / and what had to be hot subways and stinking buses and noise too much to bear…”
…then it started again, you’d call it
“pellucid distinctness of objects…”
The last phrase—probably the most obscure reference in the poem—comes from Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenistic Jew from the first century BCE who like Stern was given to “corybantic frenzies” and moments of mystical illumination. As a philosopher, Philo believes that in such a moment the mind is gone. The illumination can only be known by its brilliant after-effects. (Of which this poem is an example.) Philo writes what could also serve as a summary of I.: “I obtained language, ideas, an enjoyment of light, keenest vision, pellucid distinctness of objects, such as might be received through the eyes as the result of clearest showing.”
Gerald Stern”s magic eye for detail and feeling brings us a “clearest showing” the gift of sight that began after his mouth was “ruined” long ago by the burning coal of inspiration, which for Stern always means feeling the pain of others.
Amidst “the paper and bottles and piled up garbage,” amidst the “spiders,” there is still the next sacred encounter. Another dawn, another moment. The capital I of this late-blooming poet’s blooming poem is Inspiration.