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.
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.