Review by Ross Losapio
SAVE THE LAST DANCE
by Gerald Stern
W. W. Norton & Company
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10110
2009, 91 pp., $13.95
what it is – and you will look at it, you and me,
and say ‘that’s right’’ not even, ‘that’s what I had
Gerald Stern is a master of his craft. With over a dozen collections of poetry to his name, he proves with his latest, Save the Last Dance, that he remains at the top of his game. Stern’s love for the topics of his poems is profound and he commits these subjects to writing with such confidence and proficiency that the reader cannot help but adopt his vision.
That is not to say that Stern’s poetry will not challenge the reader. His imagery is visceral and communicates a great deal; however, his narrative style is often perplexing. Poems such as “1950,” “The Truth,” and “Bronze Roosters” appear to begin in mid-sentence, or even mid-thought. In addition, the poet ends many of his works with a sense of abrupt curtailment that can be frustrating:
you know the details, the porches pulled you up,
your face turned white at a certain point, I’m sure
you walked through a cloud how slow you learned how absurd
the goats of Arcady or the baskets of apples
in New Jerusalem compared to that.
In this instance, the reader is reigned in like an errant horse. It can be a shocking experience when a new comparison or image coincides with the poem’s end, forcing a period of doubt and reflection that can be uncomfortable for casual readers. Meaning may only be discerned after multiple readings, but the potential reward is great.
Stern never assumes an air of superiority in his writing. His verse is full of self-deprecation and self-revision. At times, he alters a fact or event in the very next line of a poem, claiming that it sounds better a certain way or that a detail had been omitted. This style causes a familiar relationship to be forged; the reader feels as if Stern is right there alongside him or her, muddling through the details and trying to make sense of it all at the same time.
To speak in a broad sense, Save the Last Dance is all about holes–actual, mental, and metaphysical. This theme winds its way quietly throughout the book, though it may only be obvious in the final piece. It elegantly ties the collection together as a cohesive whole. Conceptually, the hole is most thoroughly explored in the dialogue of “The Preacher.” The speaker responds to Peter, his companion, explaining what holes mean to his work:
always start with the literal and the spreading
is like blood spreading,’ I say, ‘and as for the wound it
comes from growing up with coal, the murder
of everything green, rivers burning, cities
emptied, humans herded, the vile thinking
of World War I and II, the hole in England,
the hole in Germany and what we can’t en-
The hole, in this passage, is a deficit that is deeply personal and also universal to mankind: that nagging want which drives the poet to write. The hole, though, can serve a purpose, can produce something beautiful. In “Flute” and “Flute II,” Stern marvels at the fact that it is the vessel for music and all its moods and representations. The mysterious woman at the focus of these poems produces spring and light, joy and gloom from the depths of her hollow instrument.
…I am wavering
at only reliving though what is hard is being there-
I don’t know what the Germans called it, existing,
non-existing, both at once, there is a
rose explaining it, or it’s a table…
Stern is able to present his idea of a hole subtly as well. In “Traveling Backwards” he conveys it without a proper name by obliquely defining it as existence and non-existence coinciding. A hole, after all, is defined by its own absence, an emptiness. This piece also displays the poet’s humility. He readily admits when something is beyond his description, even laments it at times, but, somehow, manages to depict it anyway. In this way, the reader goes through the same mental exercises, ultimately arriving at Stern’s assessment.
Of course, sometimes a hole is just a hole: a place by the side of the road to bury a fawn, struck accidentally by a car, as in “My Dear.” Gerald Stern, lest the reader forget, is a great lover of life. His poems are tribute and sacrifice to the numerous and ever-multiplying objects of his love: elm trees, old friends, spaghetti, and, especially, animals. The fawn becomes a member of the family and Stern’s language in describing its death is devastating. His most profound descriptions are reserved for these creatures. For example, the collection’s namesake poem, “Save the Last Dance for Me” concerns a Chihuahua that the speaker must rescue from an uncovered sewer:
Jésus, kiss me again,
Jésus, you saved me,
Jésus, I can’t forget you;
and what was her name who gave me
the towel? and who was I?
and what is love doing in
a sewer, and how is disgrace
blurred now, or buried?
The woman who charges him with rescuing the dog is forgettable. Even the speaker’s own identity comes into question as the poem concludes, but the Chihuahua has a name and a distinctive character. In being rescued, it loves the speaker so fiercely, creates such an impact, that it is remembered and personified long after other details about the event have been lost forever.
Throughout Save the Last Dance, Gerald Stern writes with a selflessness that is both refreshing and disconcerting. His work is absolutely concerned with his subject and the moment in which it exists. As a result, the reader will feast on the imagery employed and the devotion evident in Stern’s writing. Consequently, it can be difficult to frame individual poems, initially, with a clear narrative as the poet endeavors to truthfully replicate what he perceives. Those willing to work a little harder and read a little more carefully, however, will find it to be a rich experience. Gerald Stern is a commanding presence in contemporary poetry, the evidence of which lies in this collection.
Ross Losapio is a New Jersey native and graduate of Loyola University Maryland where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Writing and English. His poetry has formerly been published in Soundings East, Italian Americana,and, most recently, in the Fall 2009 issue of Interrobang?! Magazine. He has also self-published a chapbook of poems entitled The Measure of Healing.