Save the Last Dance
by Gerald Stern
W.W. Norton, 2008
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If you've read
American Sonnets and
Everything Is Burning,
the previous collections, then you know the kind of poem you can expect from
Save the Last Dance,
Gerald Stern's latest. Like Picasso, Stern, now in his 80s, has moved into a phase that mediates between immutable
fact and implacable desire by adjusting the succession of content and image upward (a feat for the verbally robust
Stern) while adjusting the level of form downward. Some people I know don't go for late Picasso, those kinetic
paintings done sometimes three and four a day. I find them, however, full of righteous impatience and imaginative
candor. They're impatient with our sense of time as luxury and at the same time never fail to keep desire working
at high pressure. Did someone just think that Gerald Stern must be in a state of contradiction? So he contradicts
himself, but age explodes the containers which are, in some sense, a kind of formal set of markings that let us
discriminate between one work and the next, rather than giving us license to think of the whole as more worthy of
our contemplation than the parts. Stern has always seemed to be writing one long Representative Man poem (albeit a
Man of startlingly large humanity and feelings), and the short poems of recent memory both continue and fill in
while giving a means to let waves of perception and memory take their place.
For most, the years become a brake the mind taps, sometimes without its being aware, but for others, fit though few,
the mind speeds up in age. Stern is, as Flannery O'Connor would say, "one of the latters." In recent
years he has developed a stylistic advance that departs from his familiar ebulliance by appearing to be less
anaphoristic than free-associational:
Diogenes for me and sleeping in a bathtub
and stealing the key to the genealogy 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.
Their relentless insistence on flow and overflow, of juxtaposition and chance dealing of emotions
and things, reminds me just how language is another thing to put beside our emotional, moral, experiential
life-kit. When you realize that it is a thing of "marks and noises" (and here, I was about to add
just marks and noises), you begin to see with what facility it can accommodate rapid-fire thought. Brodsky
remarked that poetry is thought running at maximum velocity. While it's true that a great poet's multitasking
is a redoubtable thing, you don't always notice the fact of that velocity. With Stern you are rarely allowed to
notice otherwise. Take, for example, "Traveling Backward," a poem that snaps from backward to forward
like a pinball off a loaded cushion:
Traveling backwards in time is almost nothing
for here is the brain and with it I have relived
one thing after another but I am wavering
at only reliving though what is hard is being there
From here it's not clear where the poet must go, or that his going there will seal the deal of
meaning, but something happens that is satisfying, even if its level of indeterminacy looks almost like caprice:
I don't know what the Germans called it, existing,
non-existing, both at once, there is a rose
explaining it, or it's a table;
imagine that, from one tree and its branches
once it was rooted, once the leaves were glabrous
and coruscating, then came everything.
And sure enough, once "glabrous" and "coruscating" enter as terms and
instruments of judgment, then, as Wittgenstein promised of Moore's "proof" that he had a hand, you can
have all the rest. As he gets older, you notice even more, if more were necessary, the degree to which Stern is
a master at evoking the sensory world through everything he says. Words themselves almost become living things.
And then at the far end of the mind, those pesky Germanslike the difference between sense and nonsense,
determinism and chance, Leica and Lugeroccupy a space between profundity and atrocity; they are "both at
once." Perhaps the larger point is that the accumulation of experiential stuff supersedes the organization
and deployment of all stuff whatsoever because the mind wants it all ("such is my mind") and beyond even
that, emotion cries out to the mind to submit to its service. Thus organizationas per Germans, as per order
versus timeoften bends the note sourly:
and what did
I need the dried-out grapes for and the wet
leaves and one harmonica under a rusted
burst-out water-pipe and even a mangled
sparrow under the porch the way my brain works.
Stern is one of those poets who wants you to go along with him, to become a co-conspirator. He
gets an amiable salesman's foot in the door with outlandish emotional or whimsical charm, then works these into
trustwhich is just as well, as underlying his poems is not only the sense of wonder that brightens the surfaces
but the continual pall, first of history, then of reflections on history, then of desire mit shuttering
fall of the real, then of nature and our common destiny in time and "dirt." Not for nothing do several of
the new poems deal in the foot, in the shodding of Americans ("Thom McCann") who might otherwise believe
their heads and the products of their heads were paramount.
It is in such a collaborative spirit that the last, and most surprising (and satisfying) poem unfolds: "The
Preacher," a chapbook-length reflection on Ecclesiastes, especially, as he notes, in view of Alicia Ostriker's
essay (which appeared in APR) on the Hebraic and linguistic nuances of that book, in which the "vanity"
of "all is vanity" is sourced to more elemental meanings of "wind," "mist," and
"spirit." An interlocutor, the poet Peter Richards, and Stern discuss this most-quoted and least-understood
book of the Bible in terms of the ambivalence inherent in "holes," of which lacunae, graves, buckets,
Pascalian abysses, mole holes, empty thoughts, historical and national omissions qualify as specimens. The dialogue
that ensues between Stern and Richards builds a text of great cumulative power, micro to macro, urbi et orbi
that, as a repository, is itself a hole and at the same time the very opposite of a hole, being fuller and
fuller as we read.
"What made you think
of a hole the way you did?" he [i.e., Peter] asks.
always start with the literal and the spreading
is like blood spreading," I say, "and as for the wound it
comes from growing up with coal, the murder
of everything green, rivers burning, cities
emptied, humans herded, the vile thinking
of World War I and II, the hole in England,
the hole in Germany, and what we can't en-
dure, the hole in Japan . . ."
That coal, which goes from black to red in the poet's oeuvre, no longer needs a gloss to underscore its special significance re Pittsburgh, fame, inspiration, friendship; neither does the movement toward questions of judgment, often political, need continual support:
"It's justice you want,
isnt it? quoth Peter.
"I'll tell you what,
(I say) when I see a hairy vine encircle a
tree and make its red mark on the life sap
gushing desperately into the forementioned leaves I
even sigh then . . ."
The question of form that I mentioned in relation to the poems in the first sections of the book
is addressed in "The Preacher," too, as is form's ambivalent nature. Peter begins a telling exchange:
"form was a bucket, it stood there
tilting a little on a rock, it was
inside the bucket, and sloshing, give it three days
and it would evaporate, it would return
as form always does, to air."
"I was still struggling
to free the poem," I said, "to free the poet,
buckets sound good to me, Immanuel Kant sounds
good, Schiller sounds better. I shouldn't be spending my
time doing this, the only point is releasing
the tongue . . ."
The ambivalence is that the hole, what we might call the receptivity receptacle, is, in its other
aspect, a drum. Peter notes that this key image, in moving from hole to drum, also moves from mere air (the
"vanity" of Ecclesiastes) to the membrane of presence, the music-maker's instrument:
" . . . but if I turn the bucket over
I have a drum, and I can start with
fingers or palms, I hold it between my knees
it's always held like thatand it was tilted,
as everything is tilted."
This is good, but Stern is not content to leave it there. In his rejoinder, he
". . .what I
long for more than anything else is speech
not tilted, it breaks my heart that I
grew up in darkness so."
We're left to wonder if that tilting in darkness isn't also a kind of tilting in rhetoric, of the
sort that Dickinson recommended for its "slant" but that for the very same reason Tolstoy was moved to
condemnation. It is no easy thing, the releasing of the tongue.
"The Preacher," in its sturdy, yet nuanced approach to language, spirit, vanity and air, reminds me of
another long poem (one of Two Long Poems, 1990), one that didn't make into the 1998
Time: New & Selected Poems. But I remember well its final poignant admonition, one that
resounds in a universe where lamentations are rich in love and love, rich in lamentation. The dance of these
twothe "last dance," whose binary motion both embodies ambivalence and celebrates the "wild
God" of his imagination is as close as we can get to an unwobbling pivot of a great poet's mind: "That's
right," the speaker says when confronted with inept meddlers and facile Prometheuses: "No fucking with