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.
Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes is a writer and editor. Her book, Ashley Sugarnotch & the Wolf, is forthcoming from Mason Jar Press.