• Review
By – April 25, 2023

As Ger­ald Stern explains in a short intro­duc­tion, his book-length poet­ic sequence I. is nei­ther a rewrite” nor a retelling” of the book of Isa­iah, but rather a con­tin­u­a­tion.” These thir­ty-five poems trace the New York jour­ney — a side trip on the east side,” Stern jokes — of a fig­ure named I. The poem begins when this man sees, as Stern once did from the win­dow of a bus, the East End Tem­ple, an aban­doned syn­a­gogue whose facade bears an inscrip­tion from Isa­iah: This house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.

The sight seems to sum­mon a ver­sion of the prophet into the poem. He — that is, I. — is by turns furi­ous, mourn­ful, hec­tor­ing, and nos­tal­gic; he is com­pul­sive, and, some­times, berserk.” (He rearranges the salt-and-pep­per shak­ers at the Cos­mos Din­er, a real place that is now closed.) Look­ing at the temple’s facade, plas­tered with expired work per­mits, I. thinks the work / will nev­er be done” — a sen­ti­ment that echoes much Jew­ish writ­ing and thought.

Most­ly, I. roams the city, stir­ring up the ghosts of oth­er books (Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Ginsberg’s Howl, among oth­ers), and mus­ing on the injus­tices of the past, present, and future. Stern’s use of the third per­son he” when he writes about I. lends a poet­ic con­scious­ness that is both inside and out­side the char­ac­ter. He describes I. kash­er­ing meat: “ … you drain the flesh, you salt the flesh, you pound it / on mar­ble till it’s dry … and that’s for Mom, remem­ber, Mom? I. cooked it through and through, he cooked the potatoes … ” 

If it sounds like a strange poem, it is. Car­ried along by the poet’s inven­tion, though, the read­er may find Stern’s I. no stranger than its pre­de­ces­sor. Like the Book of Isa­iah, I. is mul­ti-voiced, sequen­tial­ly hyper-focused, and some­times cryp­tic. Everyone’s name is an ini­tial: M. is Moses, E. is Emi­ly Dick­in­son, W. is George W. Bush. The Almighty goes by the ini­tial G. and resem­bles the God of Isa­iah. In an illu­mi­nat­ing after­word, Ali­cia Ostrik­er observes that in Stern’s poem, God and I. are suf­fer­ing in tan­dem.” When I. wal­lows in self-recrim­i­na­tion, Stern asks, wasn’t G. / him­self emo­tion­al? Didn’t M. make him cry?” 

Stern, who died at nine­ty-sev­en in Octo­ber 2022, first pub­lished I. in the online mag­a­zine Black­bird in 2009 — way back when online’ was sort of unof­fi­cial or ille­git­i­mate,” poet Ross Gay writes in the elo­quent, affec­tion­ate biog­ra­phy of Stern that serves as the book’s fore­word. While the poem is still par­tial­ly avail­able online, the artist-run Jew­ish pub­lish­er Ayin Press has cre­at­ed an aus­tere, attrac­tive pre­sen­ta­tion that con­veys both the dig­ni­ty of Stern’s achieve­ment and the demo­c­ra­t­ic, approach­able qual­i­ty of his work. A wel­come addi­tion to Stern’s pub­lished cor­pus, I. is a fine intro­duc­tion to what Gay calls the adamant digres­sion” of his work. It is also a piece of prophe­cy for our own time, one that man­ages to love the bro­ken world it evokes. For, as the poet con­cludes of I., “ … he hasn’t last­ed for eighty-two years for nothing.” 

Nan Cohen is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tions Rope Bridge and Unfin­ished City and the chap­book Thou­sand-Year-Old Words. The recip­i­ent of a fel­low­ship from the Yet­zi­rah con­fer­ence for Jew­ish poets, her poems have recent­ly appeared on The Slow­down and in The Beloit Poet­ry Journal.

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