Blessed as We Were 

  • Review

Ger­ald Stern’s col­lec­tion of select­ed and new poems from 2001 to 2018, Blessed as We Were, show­cas­es poems root­ed in place that bar­rel for­ward, leav­ing the read­er gasp­ing to take a breath by the end of each one. The major­i­ty of poems have a sin­gle peri­od in them, and it’s the last char­ac­ter of the whole poem. There is oth­er punc­tu­a­tion and tran­si­tion, like com­mas and con­junc­tions, giv­ing the read­er space to bounce from moment to moment. This cre­ates poems that do not feel rushed but instead feel urgent. For exam­ple, in the poem, Burn­ing,” Stern starts:

Where is the mind that asked where the drugstore

that stood at the crest of a hill and had a beacon

as its emblem, and I ate fruit sal­ad sun­daes there

and grilled cheese sand­wich­es, was or wasn’t a tower,

in the sense that there were porch­es win­dows, staircases…

Here, the read­er isn’t giv­en a com­ma until the third line, and from there the poem tum­bles for­ward into a list of things — a style which can be seen through­out, poems of things. Stern places the images of objects in front of us and lets the read­er col­lect them, and that col­lec­tion becomes the poem.

It is through this col­lec­tion of things that Stern cre­ates a sense of place. The poems some­times feel like a road trip across Mary­land, New Jer­sey, New York and, large­ly, Penn­syl­va­nia. Towns across Penn­syl­va­nia appear — from Fleet­wood to Pitts­burgh. In After the Church Read­ing Against the War,” he writes:

and it was such a plea­sure dri­ving home

with the win­dow open and the smell of

win­ter on Route 78 and thinking

again of Gal­way and his stone sidewalk

and how I flew and how a bird ascends

at the last minute just to tease you, especially

crows, espe­cial­ly pigeons — and spar­rows — so hungry…

Route 78 is a high­way that runs from Cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia all the way to New York City. Read­ing this pas­sage, snug in the mid­dle of the poem, the read­er them­selves can imag­ine fly­ing down the high­way, as Stern’s lines move from the place and the weath­er, to his own mem­o­ries and to birds — and then we get a zoo of com­mon birds, our own small collection.

Stern’s select­ed poems show­case how lan­guage can cre­ate move­ment. They dri­ve fast and hard and cat­a­logue every­thing they can along the way.

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