- Neither Here nor There
Mihaela Moscaliuc, ed.
Trinity University Press
240 Pages; Print, $29.95
A month ago, I had never so much as heard of Gerald Stern. I am expecting my university to revoke my B. A. in English any day now on this fact alone. I approached Insane Devotion edited by Mihaela Moscaliuc with complete ignorance. I was a blank slate exploring a poet through the eyes of not one, but sixteen other writers. My only question was whether it would even be possible to walk away from the experience with an actual understanding of not only Gerald Stern's greatest works but also who he was as an American writer.
Not only was this possible, but I dare suggest I was onto something with my approach.
By going blindly into Insane Devotion, I came to know Gerald Stern through the eyes of his peers and those who looked up to his work for their entire careers. I had the pleasure of picking apart the pieces of his writing through those who understand him best. Reading the introduction by Mihaela Moscaliuc provided the foundation on which I would come to know this complex poet. With his unique "Yiddishisms" and focus on "the impurity of American English," I read the words of Stern for the first time through his greatest admirers. I was immediately perplexed, as are many of the writers in Insane Devotion, by the contradictions of Stern as an American writer. Though he writes after WWII, his poems do not fit the postmodern mold. As Edward Hirsch writes in his essay "Guide for the Perplexed," Gerald Stern is none other than "an American original … an Orphic voice living inside history." Hirsch isn't the only scholar to recognize the contrary nature of Stern's work. Though he is compared to other greats like Emily Dickinson and William Wordsworth, he retains his own unique, timeless quality that does not lend itself to one period or writing movement. Like Hirsch says, Gerald Stern is an "American original" who, through his work, unites both a nostalgia for the past with a deep drive to keep moving forward.
Gerald Stern's poems do not shy away from the challenges of the past, but he does paint them with his own brush. This is seen most clearly in his unique position as a Jewish writer in a post-Holocaust world. Dara Barnat tackles this concept in her essay "Gerald Stern, Walt Whitman, and Jewish American Identity." She compares Stern to many other Jewish American writers, saying "Stern despises religious conservatism; yet Jewish themes, such as anti-Semitism, assimilation, immigration, the Holocaust, Hebrew and Yiddish, and 'Old World' Jewish culture, pervade his writing." This balance between old tensions and new ideas is found in poems such as "Behaving Like a Jew"
and "Soap." He is both an outsider and an insider, neither here nor there. I find myself drawn into his conflicted fence-sitting, and this is something that makes him so easy for us all to relate to. Stern offers his own definition of what it means to be Jewish in America, and this undertone paints his perception of things from the past.
The writers in Insane Devotion, as a whole, recognize Stern's view on nostalgia through his depicted memories. When speaking of the past, Stern combs his thoughts and feelings with expert precision. As Michael Walters says, many of his poems are revealed to be "breathless [bursts] of memory." Waters analyzes Stern's poem "Casals" as a prime example of this brief glimpse into the past. The poem begins, "You could either go back to the canary / or you could listen to Bach's unaccompanied Suites / for which, in both cases, you would have the same sofa." J. T. Barbarese has a slightly altered reading of this poet's memory. According to Barbarese, nostalgia is a close relative of recklessness. Because of their closeness in intent, "The past has to be retold slantwise because memory can be false and fact polarizes." This Emily Dickinson inspired reading merges...