March 25, 2010

Review by Ross Losapio

SAVE THE LAST DANCESave the Last Dance by Gerald Stern
by Gerald Stern

W. W. Norton & Company
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10110
ISBN 978-0-393-33731-0
2009, 91 pp., $13.95

…it is
what it is – and you will look at it, you and me,
and say ‘that’s right’’ not even, ‘that’s what I had
in mind’…
(“The Preacher”)

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.
(“What For?”)

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:

                                                   ‘My figures
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…
(“Traveling Backwards”)

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.

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December 20, 2009

Review by Ross LosapioAnnie La Ganga - Stoners and Self-Appointed Saints

by Annie La Ganga

Red Hen Press
P.O. Box 3537
Granada Hills, CA 91394
ISBN 978-1-59709-155-8
2009, 73 pp., $15.95

I’ve seen it, I’ve seen all this before. I’ve met monsters, hell, I took them camping and out for frozen yogurt on the way home.

(“The Tour Guide’s Apology” )

Annie La Ganga’s memoir, Stoners and Self-Appointed Saints, transports the reader somewhere dangerous, sexy, and smoky. It delivers a payload of drugs, monsters, and self-loathing at a dizzying pace. Reading it is like experiencing the progressing symptoms of an overdose.

At first glance, the work’s integrity as a memoir comes under scrutiny. We see (hear, smell, and even taste) many of La Ganga’s stoner, failed-artist friends, but her own family and personal history are glossed over. For instance, in revealing the circumstances of her mother’s seizing death on the kitchen floor, she devotes an equal amount of page space to describing a responding fireman’s watch:

He said it was for diving in the ocean and telling the time so you could know how many breaths you had left before you had to go up.

(“Three-Minute Memoir” )

Section titles like “Three-Minute Memoir” seem to devalue the author by condensing her life to the length of a pop song. Similarly, “Three Important Stoners” places emphasis on otherwise anonymous friends. As the reader progresses, though, it becomes clear that there is more to learn about La Ganga from the relationships she chooses than from those she inherits.

Hunger is the driving force in La Ganga’s memoir: the desire to devour everything around her and, in doing so, complete her own fractured identity. For instance, she is beside herself with joy after embracing a low-carb diet and eating a pound of ground hamburger. The next day, her mood plummets when the holiday season draws attention to her professionally successful friends and relatives. Later, a contact high from an evening with her pot-smoking neighbors and the prospect of buying a new pair of Nikes convinces her that life is worth living after all. She is the ultimate consumer. Upon seeing her American Express card cut up in a jewelry store in California, La Ganga panics:

There was no distinction between me and my credit. I ruined myself and then had to keep ruining myself even more dramatically to get rid of the shame that made my ears hot and made me crave tacos from Jack in the Box…

(“Money Matters”)

She needs money, but only as the means to another end. Credit becomes marijuana, colored pencils, and fast-food burgers. What money cannot buy, she purchases with her body and soul. She dates whole families at a time. She welcomes iguana owners and self-diagnosed werewolves into her life and then invokes satanic rituals to punish them after the novelty of their presence wears off. When faced with the prospect of actual love for another person, La Ganga recognizes it but decides it is too complicated to be worthwhile. She cannot find love on a drive-thru menu; therefore it does not exist in her life.

[Love] is like a pomegranate, so many pieces to pick out, such a big mess, and you never get full. But what other fruit is so gorgeous and interesting and filled with tiny sparkling jewels?

(“A Waitress in Love” )

La Ganga’s anecdotes draw the reader in, but her writing is strongest when contemplating what it means for her to be a writer and an artist. She slips away from straightforward storytelling and allows metaphor and imagery to rule her description. The result is a headier brew than much of the text, but, ultimately, a more satisfying one. Every role that La Ganga assumes (daughter, drug user, lover, etc.) gives way to that of artist, though she rarely produces proof of it.

I want poems every day and effortless symphonies. I want hot and cold running. I want the sing-song magic voice that makes everything, even cheap toilet paper, feel like a paycheck.

(“Patience is a Virtue” )

If this memoir is about anything, it is about pursuing validation as a person and as a writer. By the end, the reader does not feel any affirmation, but senses its presence in the room like a ghost. Anyone can relate to the struggle to create something meaningful and have it appreciated. La Ganga’s story is not new, but her approach to telling it is..

To that end, Stoners and Self-Appointed Saints represents problem and solution, argument and evidence. The prose poem is a difficult form, but La Ganga executes it better than most throughout her memoir. The narrative’s role in prose poetry is passionately debated and the genre line is constantly toed. Stoners and Self-Appointed Saints sidesteps the argument by focusing each episodic section on a distinct character, emotion, or moment in time. No strict narrative is ever created, but a cohesive memoir is formed by recognizing the impact of these people and events in the author’s life. La Ganga also tempers the form’s somewhat weighty and complex nature by including more traditional poems, lists, and diary entries. The end product races through the reader, almost of its own volition, like a drug entering the blood stream.


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 and Italian Americana and is forthcoming in the Fall 2009 issue of Interrobang?! Magazine. He has also self-published a chapbook of poems entitled The Measure of Healing.

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