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Paradise poems.

Stern is a poet of great rhetorical energy and force--a spiritual heir to Emerson, temperamentally akin to the early Ginsberg and the late Roethke--yet he is less interested in the perfected artifact of the poem than in the emotion it embodies. Two of the key lyrics in Paradise Poems, "Weeping and Wailing" and "It's Nice to Think of Tears," celebrate an almost joyous sadness and revel in feeling. "We have to start with feeling," one poem instructs us, "we poor machines" ("Fritz"). "In Memory of W.H. Auden" begins:

I am going over my early rages again, my first laments and ecstasies, my old indictments and spiritualities. I am standing, like Schiller, in front of Auden's door waiting for his carved face to let me in. In my hand is The Poem of My Heart I dragged from one ruined continent of the other, all my feelings slipping out on the sidewalk.

On one level the poem is an elegy for a "wrinkled priest" and poetic "magician"; on another it is about artistic loneliness, about feeling like a "clumsy Caliban" before "old Prospero," knowing that the master's stick will never rest on his head, that he will have to wait decades for the first riches. "I had to find my own way back," the poem announces. "I had to/free myself, I had to find my own pleasure/in my own sweet cave, with my own sweet music." Stern's tribute becomes a poem about finding a personal music, a self.

Stern is a poet of the egotistical sublime, a writer who understands the world in terms of the self and reads his own feelings across the landscape. A surprising (and perhaps disconerting) number of poems in Paradise Poems begin in the present tense with a direct and often extravagant personal assertion: "I am letting two old roses stand for everything I believe in" ("Orange Roses"); "I know this life is a madness" ("Huzza!); "Today it was just a leaf that told me/I should live for love" ("Today a Leaf"). The "I" is usually doing something small and specific in a Stern poem, something quirky and emblematic, characteristically conjoining the miniature and the gigantic, the self and the world. Often one thing is playfully made to represent another; a daily object is arbitrarily designated as a sign for a much larger idea or emotion. In "I Pity the Wind" a broom is said to stand for "my speech on justice" and a handkerchief for "the veil of melodrama I have worn for thirty years." Similarly, in "Christmas Sticks" a pair of sticks are transformed into old-world Jewish intellectuals coming home from a wedding, "two great masters of suffering and sadness/singing songs about love and regeneration."

When it comes to tone, Stern is the most surprising and slippery of poets. Typically, he pursues a metaphor or an idea as far as possible to see what it will yield, with the result that his comic inflations often turn out to be dead serious. For example, "Soap" begins as an odd, semihumorous piece about finding small bars of soap in human shape ("Here is a green Jew/with thin black lips"), but it quickly evolves into a study of the poet's imaginary East European counterpart who died in the Holocaust. Stern's poems take off on great imaginative and rhetorical flights, and are full of exaggerations, but ultimately they are about witnessing.

Like his emblematic Christmas sticks, Stern is a poet of doubleness: a master of suffering and sorrow continually singing of love and regeneration. All his work is haunted by memory, by the reality of an irretrievable past, but Paradise Poems goes further than his previous work in calling that past a paradise, the only one available to us. "I'm in heaven," one poem testifies, "I saw the meadow, I heard the voices, I felt/the light on my face--in Marietta, Ohio" ("At Jane's"). For Stern, paradise is not a place in the hereafter so much as a country he's already visited, a world of lost innocence and unity, a memory of rapturous moments and ecstatic feelings. "That was the everlasting/life, his youth. "The true world without end" ("Vivaldi Years"). The elegiac poem "The Expulsion" laments for a paradise of two, "two at the most," the poet and his father standing in line to see leaving the garden. "The Dancing" recalls a paradise of three, the poet and his parents, dancing wildly in their tiny living room on Beechwood Boulevard:

. . . the world at last a meadow, 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.

By remembering not only "the evil Mellons" but also that "other dancing" Stern becomes a political as well as a personal poet, turning his attention back to the historical world, remembering that one family's heaven exists alongside another's hell. His work continually struggles to enlarge itself so that the destruction of one kingdom--a private personal world--comes to stand for the destruction of a second kingdom--the larger public world. In both realms, every paradise is lost.

The idea of regeneration through music is one of the central motifs of Paradise Poems. "It's only music that saves me," "Romania, Romania" asserts, and song is the book's dominant metaphor of transport and transformation, even of momentary transcendence. Again and again the poems re-enact an experience "too good for words" ("Fritz"), of lying down and listening to Kreisler and Bach and Virgil Thompson, of walking around with the memory of Menuhin and Heifetz and, of course, "the great Stern himself/dragging his that from one ruined soul to another" ("Romania, Romania"). The poems dwell lovingly on moments of singing in harmony. The idea animating them is ultimately the same idea that animated Rejoicings: "how hard it was to live/with hatred, how long it took to convert/death and sadness into beautiful singing" ("Singing").

Gerald Stern is the most unlikely of our poets. He is a romantic with a sense of humor, an Orphic voice living inside history, a sometimes comic, sometimes tragic visionary crying out against imprisonment and shame, singing of loneliness and rejuvenation, dreaming of social justice and community. I think of him as an ecstatic Maimonides writing his own idiosyncratic guide for the perplexed, helping us to live in the world as it is, converting our losses, transforming death and sadness into singing.
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Author:Hirsch, Edward
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 19, 1985
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