Review: Stealing History

Essays by Gerald Stern, Stealing History.

Trinity University Press
review by  W. M. Lobko

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Gerald Stern on the former U.S. general Stanley McChrystal: “…he was and is rebellious violent brilliant cocky insubordinate focused a braggart a patriot, and, as the head of Special Operations and as a commander in the Rangers, a specialized killer”.

On the similarity between Babylon, Hell, Trenton, and Auschwitz: “There are four cities with a motto written over them. This is a shame and should be rectified”.

On political bicameralism: “The Republicans are lower than dog shit, not to mention that in all things save lying, they are utterly stupid. Think sea level. Democrats are better by far but everyone of them carries either a blunt dagger or a small vial of poison to self-destruct when the time is ripe”.

Is there nothing Stern won’t say, is nothing sacred, or, more likely for him, is everything? Is there anything left for the rest of us to say, or think, that hasn’t been touched on, agitated by, poked and prodded and awakened and enlarged by Stern’s passionate, irascible intelligence? Is there anything he won’t rap with his cane? Will he be permitted to go on forever? I tripped (as in stumbled, decided suddenly to run when that mischievous tree root shoved its way in front of my foot) through Stern’s books (of which there are eighteen collections of poetry), and this yielded me verse about Jack Ruby, jazz clubs, lilacs, the homeless, blossoms salvaged for the table, the city of Kiev, elegies for friends, excoriations of statesmen and generals. Stern, 88, seems to have lived twice that long. He has won—earned, scrapped for and secured—the Wallace Stevens and the Ruth Lilly, among dozens of others laurels. He has taught all over, including the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for a long and influential stint. His big mouth (his term) and rabble-rousing (mine) have made a hundred enemies, a thousand alliances, ten thousand endless friendships, and countless poets and readers, all of whom lead richer lives now, and love him for it. Skewerer of Israel’s aggression, lover of Jews. Hater of hypocrisy, adorer of flowers. Reflective, appreciative, kind, loud, killer of indifference. A flaneur (one who walks a city in order to experience it) in New York, Pittsburgh, Samos (that’s in Greece), Bialystock. A real live American Whitman by way of Poland and the Lower East Side, a brilliant bespittled protagonist out of Roth or Bellow, probably the latter’s Henderson the Rain King, who had “a ceaseless voice in my heart that said, I want, I want, I want, oh, I want — yes, go on, I said to myself, Strike, strike, strike, strike!” A striker, a soap-boxer, a scrapper long in the tooth, the sword, the pen, the sentence that we’ve all been given, to live as variously as possible while we yet live.

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Now he has given us another book of essays, his third, in Stealing History. Like Stern himself, this is a difficult book to describe. His subjects are impossible to predict, like his sentences, like his angers and his passions. Stern tries to explain what he’s up to: “I don’t know what this book is, a way of remembering, a disgrace. I try desperately now to reach out to those I want or who want me before it’s too late” . Here, he is right: many of these short pieces elegize friends, poets, lovers, elders, places. In these pieces the book has the flavor of a literary autobiography that is revealing and heartbreaking. We hear Stern reading Gilgamesh and remembering a English department chair he tussled with, and defeated. We mourn with him the poets Larry Levis, James Schuyler, and Lucille Clifton, who “herself is the poem, her own words are the words of the poem”.

Stealing History is other things: a journal here, a memoir there, a collection of essays in the way Montaigne meant it—an attempt to get at some subject or idea clearly. “The main thing,” Stern says elsewhere, in another attempt to describe just what it is he’s doing, “…is the memory, not the job in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and not the anger in occupied Vienna, not as such. And I have to be forgiven for writing—at times—without irony, cuteness, triple-think, avoidance, self-pity, and stealthy, as simply as I can, with the same speed and same ‘first-thoughts’ I would in a letter”. Here, Stern is right again: he blurts forth like language needs to be used (if never used up), like language itself. His willingness to explore intrigues, amuses, and sometimes thrills. Here’s an excerpt from his piece “The Comic”:

As grace would have it, I turned on the television last night to a Marx Brothers extravaganza—a better word, for them, than “festival.” There were four films—I could have watched till three a.m., but I got tired. Everything in the way of irreverence, mockery bathos, the ridiculing of institutions, wordplay, hijinks, disrespect, craziness, and anti-authoritarianism was there. But it was, to my eyes, gentle. There must be some connection with Talmud and Midrash, the passion for words—for talk—(though Harpo, if noisy, is silent); and there is pride, revenge, and absurdity, shtetl staples; and there is brilliance—much respected—and irony; and victory. It’s called “over-the-top” now, isn’t it? Is that a term from trench warefare, does trench warfare account for earthiness, one-liners, extravagance, and speed? Certainly earthiness. Speaking of trench warfare…

“Speaking” indeed. The book advances—careens—forward in this fashion, but this approach doesn’t overwhelm. Always Stern is in control of what he knows, and how to trust his curiosity. The intelligent links Stern finds feel all the more urgent for the limber way he finds them—little has been planned, everything has been discovered. Each piece is a little of this and a little of that, a prose experiment in memoir, anger, reliable negative capability. This book is a tape recorder running as you enjoy a pickle and a vodka with your grandfather in the kitchen basement: thank God it’s running.

Some pieces hold together more overtly, with a clearer organizing principle. “Demystification” is one of these. A gorgeous rumination on the tendency, the requirement perhaps, of religions and institutions to restrict access to information and experience—to make hierarchical elements of the human experience—“Demystification” is a foremost example of Stern’s ability to render an argument and a lyric simultaneously. The bigness of Stern’s approach is still here—we hear about Gilgamesh again, Spinoza, the Book of Genesis, Homer and King Lear—but these references digressions accumulate into clarity and don’t feel like digression. Obviously Stern would know how to wield a thesis: “We are left with basic human loneliness—nakedness—and nothing in the way of sophistry, obscurity, or concealment works in the face of that.” That in hand, Stern launches into a stirring plan for how to succeed in the challenging project of being human:

I believe human beings should pay very close attention to each  other…They should insist on security for and from the larger society. They should pay attention to the past, live with grief, make charity personal, teach without end, share food, listen patiently to the young and honor their music, turn their backs on corporations, advertising, and public lying, hate liars, undermine bullies, love June 21, and, on that day, kiss every plant and tree they see.

Stern’s style—freewheeling, influential, large-hearted and reeling, staggering, often exhilarated, often ending (“ending”) with a final rhetorical flip—is a primary source of his poetry’s bardic breath and power. It adapts surprisingly well to prose, on the whole. Of course, at times, it grates. Of course this isn’t a book to read in sequence. You couldn’t do it, for one, and what would be the point? Life isn’t that way. Neither is the mind.

In a recent New Yorker cartoon, an old man in the park works a kiosk, a pleasant smile on his face. Leaning back, he regales a boy and his mother with a tale. There is no caption. The kiosk advertises “Old Chestnuts.” In this book Stern is a little like that. He’s also a little of Christopher Hitchens, a little of Mort Sahl. Stern is your grandfather in a Buick, backing up out of the driveway whether there’s traffic or not, here he comes, perhaps his belt is loose or the oil low but the tires are full, and Stern knows only one way to go, and that’s forward, and you’re in the passenger seat and better for all of the books and tchotchkes and chance associations he has gathered in the back seat, which you can hear slide around as he drives, only a touch too fast.
Gerald Stern’s recent books of poetry are In Beauty Bright, Early Collected Poems: 1965–1992, Save the Last Dance, This Time: New and Selected Poems, which won the National Book Award, Odd Mercy, and Bread without Sugar. His honors include the Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Paris Review’s Bernard F. Conners Award, the Bess Hokin Award from Poetry, the Ruth Lilly Prize, four National Endowment for the Arts grants, the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize from the American Poetry Review, and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. In 2005 Stern received the Wallace Stevens Award for mastery in the art of poetry. For many years a teacher at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Stern lives in Lambertville, New Jersey.

W. M. Lobko’s poems, interviews, and reviews have appeared in journals such as Hunger Mountain, Kenyon Review, and The Paris-American. Current work appears in Seneca Review and The Literary Review, and new work is forthcoming from Boston Review. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and was a semi-finalist for the 92Y / Boston Review “Discovery” Prize. He is a Founding Editor of TUBA, a new review of poetry and art. He studied at the University of Oregon and currently teaches in New York.