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Rejoicings: poems 1966-1972.

In 1974 I came across a thin book titled Rejoicings: Selected Poems 1966-1972 in the back of a Philadelphia bookstore. The book had recently been published by a small Canadian press, Fiddlehead Poetry Books, in an edition of 500 copies. I had never heard of the author, gerald Stern, but I was immediately struck by the peculiarity of his voice (simultaneously ironic, grief-stricken and exultant), his startling extravagance, humor and compassion. He was clearly past the first flush of youth--one poem began "I didn't start taking myself seriously as a poet/until the white began to appear in my cheek"--and the poems all began with a sense of personal loss and disappointment. Yet they were also small triumphs of rejuvenation, little celebrations of neglected and forgotten places. However flawed, here was an unabased romantic with a sense of irony and a deep sympathy for the victimized, a middle-aged visionary wandering through the ruins--a weedy field, a burned out Army barracks--struggling to transform loss into exaltation. "When I have Reached the Point of Suffocation" speaks wtih a touching simplicity and awkwardness about the difficulty of the task:

It takes years to learn how to look at the destruction of beautiful things; to learn how to leave the place of oppression; and how to make your own regeneration out of nothing.

I'm not sure that the struggle for regeneration was wholly clear to me then, but it is everywhere apparent that Rejoicings was written out of just such a quest.

It is now possible to re-read Rejoicings, in a handsome new edition from the Metro Book Co., in the light of the knowledge provide by the three books that have followed it: Lucky Life (1977), The Red Coal (1981) and Paradise Poems (1984). Seen in this way, the book seems almost a prelude, a promise of the more exuberant and extravagant poems to come. It strikes a large number of what have become Stern's characteristic chords and tonalities, his typical verbal strategies and techniques, his essential thees. Failure is Stern's premise. "Rejoicings" is the name of the tractate on mourning in the Talmud, and his book as a whole is informed by an almost ecstatic commitment to mourning, an overwhelming desire to rescue the past from namelessness and oblivion.

In "Some Secrets," a recent essay about his poetic development, Stern reveals that the poems in Rejoicings grew directly out of a crisis that occurred around his fortieth birthday. He writes:

I think, when I look back now, that it was my own loss and my own failure that were my subject matter, as if I could only start building in the ruins. Or that loss and failure were a critical first issue in my finding a new subject matter, that they showed me the way. Or that my subject was the victory over loss and failure, or coming to grips with them.

That's why Stern's work keeps returning to abandoned city lots and the waste places of nature, why so many of his poems start with assertions such as "I love the weeds--I dream about them" ("The Weeds") or "I am sitting again on the steps of the burned out barrack" ("On the Far Edge of Kilmer"). It is here, too, that his politics originate--with a sense of both "the dignity of isolation" and the dream of community, with his compassion for the defeated, the ignored and the failed. Rejoicings was a beginning. The richer and more fully realized poems of Stern's succeeding books go much further in establishing that politics, building out from the individual to the community, linking the personal to the historical. In those books he becomes a poet with a utopian ideal, a late, ironic, Jewish disciple of Whitman.
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Author:Hirsch, Edward
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 19, 1985
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