Save The Last Dance

  • Review
By – January 16, 2012

Ger­ald Stern’s work stuns, leaves one breath­less at times, though one sus­pects he him­self may have had no such inten­tion. Stern, author of at least fif­teen books of poet­ry, respect­ed pro­fes­sor at sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ties, win­ner of many prizes, writes of life as he per­ceives it, a com­pos­ite of the utter­ly ordi­nary and the spec­tac­u­lar­ly and bizarrely exquis­ite. Con­sid­er this from Thom McCan:”

to put your feet in an X‑ray 
machine and there­by get not 
only cancer 
 and not only get fit­ted up with 
the per­fect pair of shoes, but 
 to grieve how thin your bones 
looked and how much more like 
a bird 
 you were than an ape…and how 
it was inevitable the limp­ing, it 
was called
 the break­ing in, I want­ed to tell 
you this

The emo­tion­al range in his poet­ry enables the read­er to read” Stern the man. In Aspho­del,” he mourns quite lit­er­al­ly the pieces of a dead friend, regret­ting almost bit­ter­ly the labor” required…“to see him…just to hear him.” The read­er, too, leans for­ward to grasp this unnamed lost friend, a for­got­ten vet­er­an of the Kore­an War who had large ears and wore a green cap. Stern’s ache for his friend becomes a vis­cer­al one for us as well. Here is Stern with his sense of the absurd, upon find­ing a shoe on a bridge. The poet tries to guess at the var­i­ous motives for aban­don­ing a shoe — Too loose? Too tight? Leather? Card­board?” (He’s nev­er quite done with shoes!) Much lat­er comes the explana­to­ry, I sold them at Boxer’s and Burt’s and car­ried the box­es on high.” Stern’s metaphor of shoes is not lost on us: what bet­ter form to sym­bol­ize our day-to-day, often anguished com­ings and goings? But it is in Part III, enti­tled The Preach­er,” that Stern, now 84, makes his resound­ing state­ments, rail­ing against the black holes” of the uni­verse, those cre­at­ed by humans, As if the one tree you love so well and hard­ly can embrace…so that with­out it there might be a hole in the uni­verse.” He who has lived through Hiroshi­ma, Mem­phis, Shati­la, and 9 – 11, hard­ly ignor­ing a most per­son­al impact of the Holo­caust (“Heaped in Ravines the way my cousins were in Europe”) here beseech­es us not to ignore that black hole.

Stern has been her­ald­ed as the mod­ern­day Walt Whit­man for the cel­e­bra­to­ry nature and expan­sive­ness of his poet­ry. He has won many awards, includ­ing three Nation­al Endow­ment Award Fel­low­ships, a P.E.N. Award, most recent­ly (2007) the Wal­lace Stevens Award giv­en by the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets as a life­time achieve­ment award in poet­ry. His is the tor­tur­ous chal­lenge to us all, the ter­ri­ble bur­den and exul­ta­tion of being alive. As he suc­cinct­ly says in his title poem, Save the Last Dance for Me,” of the pain and self-loathing of youth, We were caught between one pole and another.”

Ruth Seif is a retired chair­per­son of Eng­lish at Thomas Jef­fer­son High School in NYC. She served as admin­is­tra­tor in the alter­na­tive high school division.

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