As Gerald Stern explains in a short introduction, his book-length poetic sequence I. is neither a “rewrite” nor a “retelling” of the book of Isaiah, but rather a “continuation.” These thirty-five poems trace the New York journey — “a side trip on the east side,” Stern jokes — of a figure named I. The poem begins when this man sees, as Stern once did from the window of a bus, the East End Temple, an abandoned synagogue whose facade bears an inscription from Isaiah: This house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.
The sight seems to summon a version of the prophet into the poem. He — that is, I. — is by turns furious, mournful, hectoring, and nostalgic; he is “compulsive, and, sometimes, berserk.” (He rearranges the salt-and-pepper shakers at the Cosmos Diner, a real place that is now closed.) Looking at the temple’s facade, plastered with expired work permits, I. “thinks the work / will never be done” — a sentiment that echoes much Jewish writing and thought.
Mostly, I. roams the city, stirring up the ghosts of other books (Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Ginsberg’s Howl, among others), and musing on the injustices of the past, present, and future. Stern’s use of the third person “he” when he writes about I. lends a poetic consciousness that is both inside and outside the character. He describes I. kashering meat: “ … you drain the flesh, you salt the flesh, you pound it / on marble till it’s dry … and that’s for Mom, remember, Mom? I. cooked it through and through, he cooked the potatoes … ”
If it sounds like a strange poem, it is. Carried along by the poet’s invention, though, the reader may find Stern’s I. no stranger than its predecessor. Like the Book of Isaiah, I. is multi-voiced, sequentially hyper-focused, and sometimes cryptic. Everyone’s name is an initial: M. is Moses, E. is Emily Dickinson, W. is George W. Bush. The Almighty goes by the initial G. and resembles the God of Isaiah. In an illuminating afterword, Alicia Ostriker observes that in Stern’s poem, “God and I. are suffering in tandem.” When I. wallows in self-recrimination, Stern asks, “wasn’t G. / himself emotional? Didn’t M. make him cry?”
Stern, who died at ninety-seven in October 2022, first published I. in the online magazine Blackbird in 2009 — “way back when ‘online’ was sort of unofficial or illegitimate,” poet Ross Gay writes in the eloquent, affectionate biography of Stern that serves as the book’s foreword. While the poem is still partially available online, the artist-run Jewish publisher Ayin Press has created an austere, attractive presentation that conveys both the dignity of Stern’s achievement and the democratic, approachable quality of his work. A welcome addition to Stern’s published corpus, I. is a fine introduction to what Gay calls the “adamant digression” of his work. It is also a piece of prophecy for our own time, one that manages to love the broken world it evokes. For, as the poet concludes of I., “ … he hasn’t lasted for eighty-two years for nothing.”
Nan Cohen is the author of the poetry collections Rope Bridge and Unfinished City and the chapbook Thousand-Year-Old Words. She recently wrote about Jack Zipes’ new translation of Bambi for Electric Literature