Amer­i­can poet Ger­ald Stern at the Mia­mi Book Fair Inter­na­tion­al 2011

Penned in 2008 against the back­drop of a rapid­ly gen­tri­fy­ing New York City, Ger­ald Stern’s I. is a vir­tu­osic work from the mind of a poet at the apex of his explo­sive tal­ent. I. is in many ways an exer­cise in read­ing, the prod­uct of a writer who has spent decades alive inside the lan­guages of oth­ers. Stern’s obser­va­tions and griev­ances col­lide with the reg­is­ter of prophet­ic excla­ma­tion — and it is pre­cise­ly this mix­ture that makes I. such an excit­ing text. The dark humor, the wild­ness, the unabashed won­der of Stern’s poet­ry find a hap­py con­spir­a­tor in Isa­iah; they leap and bound togeth­er, spring[ing] forth” into the tan­ta­liz­ing unknown. 

Stern push­es the mul­ti­va­lence of the per­son­al pro­noun to its very lim­it. He inhab­its the per­sona of Isa­iah while still remain­ing true to his idio­syn­crat­ic self, the specter of the prophet set on his shoul­der. What moves me most, though — a char­ac­ter­is­tic I find to be deeply intrin­sic to his body of work and, in par­tic­u­lar, a pri­ma­ry mech­a­nism dri­ving I. for­ward — is a sense of sheer ver­tig­i­nous glee at the mir­a­cle of being alive. 

I first read I. a few years ago, on the sub­way, on my way to work with Jer­ry as his lit­er­ary assis­tant. I had nev­er encoun­tered it before, and he was excit­ed to share it with me. As I zoomed across the city under­ground, the poem filled me with a star­tling, almost spir­i­tu­al thrill. In the third of twen­ty-sev­en sec­tions, he writes of swoon­ing from mood to mood, filled with a full-body awe: 

And it was the sun, or the wind, or it was a chemical 

inside his heart or one of his brains or it was

see­ing a river [ … ]

oh my, you know what death is? you know 

what walk­ing bare­foot in the cold wet sand is, 

you know what walk­ing into the water is, now

think of salt, now think of rid­ing a wave

and falling down at the end and hold­ing your arms

in front of your head or scrap­ing your elbows

And as I read, inside of me a voice shout­ed a self­same oh my” — I thought I knew, but now I know, I rec­og­nize. Here, in these lines, the prophet accom­plish­es his goal: he reveals, in small moments that leave me breath­less, the God I’ve always felt but haven’t been able to artic­u­late. God in the details (“those din­er cups, an off-white / with a strip of blue a quar­ter inch from the rim, / it seems to hold much less than its thick­ness / and weight would sug­gest and there is a saucer to match / though there is no stripe of blue in the saucer”), a fierce and right­eous God, a God of the gid­di­ly pro­fane (“Wel­come, shit­heads!”), a God con­demn­ing the fee­ble ges­tures of lib­er­al sen­si­bil­i­ty (“We’re sor­ry, we thought you were dogs”), a God of anger and con­fu­sion, who feels as we do (wasn’t G. / him­self emo­tion­al? Didn’t M. make him cry?”), a God who leads us to moments of stag­ger­ing, impos­si­ble compassion. 

I. is a tes­ta­ment, a man­i­festo, a litany of griev­ances and griefs, and a pro­fes­sion of love. It is an amal­gam of the poet’s many var­ied styles and life­long pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, bril­liant­ly dis­tilled. It is, most impor­tant­ly, the ecsta­t­ic result of a life spent enam­ored with liv­ing. Ger­ald Stern, a poet of pro­fessed agnos­ti­cism, expects to fit awk­ward­ly in the ancient prophet’s shoes, but he dis­cov­ers that the footwear con­forms to his shape. What a pro­found hon­or to behold this, his last book, and to walk beside him one more time.

—Chase Berggrun

This piece is a part of the Berru Poet­ry Series, which sup­ports Jew­ish poet­ry and poets on PB Dai­lyJBC also awards the Berru Poet­ry Award in mem­o­ry of Ruth and Bernie Wein­flash as a part of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards. Click here to see the 72nd win­ner of the prize. If you’re inter­est­ed in par­tic­i­pat­ing in the series, please check out the guide­lines here.

Chase Berggrun is a trans woman poet and the author of R E D (Birds, LLC, 2018). Her work has appeared in Poet­ry Mag­a­zine, The Nation, Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, and else­where. She lives in New York City. 

Ger­ald Stern was the author of more than twen­ty col­lec­tions of poet­ry and essays. His most recent book of poems were Blessed as We Were: Late Select­ed and New Poems, 2000 – 2018 (W.W. Nor­ton, 2020). He received numer­ous awards, includ­ing the Nation­al Book Award for This Time: New and Select­ed Poems (W.W. Nor­ton, 1998). He lived in New York City.