Poet­ry

Galaxy Love

Ger­ald Stern
  • Review
By – March 28, 2017

In a lit­er­ary and pop­u­lar cul­ture that prizes youth, it is note­wor­thy that Lucky Life (1977), Ger­ald Stern’s sec­ond book — and the one that helped estab­lish him as a voice to sit up and pay atten­tion to — was pub­lished when Stern was 52. Forty years and more than a dozen books lat­er, Stern holds an impor­tant place in Amer­i­can poet­ry. Stern’s poet­ry chan­nels and ref­er­ences Walt Whit­man, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Robin­son Jef­fers, and many oth­ers; it both evokes and chal­lenges nar­ra­tives and nos­tal­gia-laced Amer­i­can myths of the Rust Belt, World War II, Bohemi­an lit­er­ary life, immi­gra­tion, Jew­ish­ness, and the pow­er of art.

Now in his nineties, Stern shows no signs of slow­ing down. In Galaxy Love, he is nos­tal­gic, expan­sive, intel­lec­tu­al, sil­ly, seri­ous, home­spun, high­fa­lutin — some­times all at once. In many of the poems in this book, Stern strikes an ele­giac tone, look­ing back on spe­cif­ic days, moments, peo­ple, and com­mu­ni­ties long gone. One might assume, then, that this is a sad book. But it isn’t, par­tic­u­lar­ly: there is joy in every poem in Galaxy Love. Stern has said that joy and sor­row go togeth­er,” and the poems of Galaxy Love rein­force this. 

An exam­ple of a joy­ful, sor­row­ful ele­gy is the poem Lar­ry,” most like­ly about the late poet Lar­ry Levis. Levis’s name is nev­er stat­ed in the poem, but Stern trav­els from Utah to France to New Orleans in joc­u­lar qua­trains that con­jure Levis’s spir­it and poet­ry. It is not until the final stan­za that Stern deliv­ers, to a woman both he and Levis had loved (and to the read­er) the bad news” of Levis’s death. Her response serves as the last line of the poem: Now I’m going upstairs to read every word he ever wrote.” After a life — and a poem — full of action, image, friend­ship, excite­ment, love, and loss, what remains, Stern seems to be say­ing, is the writing.

Part of the plea­sure of read­ing Galaxy Love is the gen­eros­i­ty and range of its ref­er­ences, which move wit­ti­ly from per­son­al to pop­u­lar to his­tor­i­cal to intel­lec­tu­al. The poem Bess, Zick­el, Warhol, Arendt” sly­ly devotes a stan­za to each fig­ure men­tioned in its title: Stern’s Aunt Bess, who died from for­get­ting,” his bewil­dered cousin” Zick­el, and Stern’s friend Andy, with whom the poet

used to resort to walk­ing across the 7th Street Bridge
now the Warhol Bridge — the Alleghe­ny Riv­er—
though there is no Ger­ald Stern Bridge any­where
nor Michel Fou­cault nor Jacques Derrida. 

Devot­ing the final stan­za of the poem to Han­nah Arendt doesn’t seem so strange, despite how far Stern has tak­en us, in just a few stan­zas, from Aunt Bess’s bowls of Rice Krispies. I’m sure you remem­ber her,” Stern writes of Arendt, as if she, too, were a fam­i­ly mem­ber. Here is yet anoth­er plea­sure of Galaxy Love: Stern’s easy way of col­laps­ing seem­ing­ly impos­si­ble dis­tances of time and space. Anoth­er way to say this is that Stern has vision. His per­spec­tive, and his way of access­ing reli­gious, polit­i­cal, and lit­er­ary his­to­ry, have earned him a place among great Amer­i­can poets. 

Relat­ed Content:

Lucy Bie­der­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty in Tif­fin, Ohio. Her first book, The Wal­mart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.

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