Bert Stern Steerage

ISBN 13: 9780979531385

Steerage

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9780979531385: Steerage

Steerage was the place deep in the hold, well below deck, windowless, where, for centuries, they put cattle that had to be carried across the ocean. When the great waves of migration came to the U.S., the thousands of dirt-poor peasants rode there as well. Down there, asks Bert Stern s ancestor in the title poem of Steerage, Who knew where to go to the toilet, if there would be water? In a corner, on blankets, we made house. The crowding, the noise, the smells of stale seawater and p..s, / animals and human sweat, made the gorge rise. One woman called it Gehenna, hell, but they all went down into the hold anyway and most of them made it to America. That s where this remarkable book of poems starts, with such memory as Stern can piece together, or imagine, of what brought his ancestors, driven out of Russia by pogrom, to a life in Buffalo. All suffered to bring me here to this room where I write, bigger than the house my mother was born in. I am somebody s dream. Let them/ tell me if they can . . . if I am recompense for what they endured. Steerage also plays on the verb, to steer, to guide. This is the defining act of these poems. In the long absence of those who suffered to bring me here, late in life, with death almost a friendly companion, the poet moves gingerly but expertly between his fears and longings, between then and now. Myself, he says in Blackberries, I don t go back much further than last Tuesday s two a.m., but I smell my elders almost benign around me, and I eat the berries they send forth as seed. More than anything else, Bert Stern s poems find a way to wear the great heaviness of life with a charitable lightness. In a rare comic moment, a rabbi approaches the speaker asking for a donation to SPEJS, the Society for the Permanent Elimination of Jewish Suffering. I gave already at the office, says the speaker. What office? I can t explain. . . . It s outside history. Only God is outside history, says the rabbi, but wanting proof anyway, he takes off his black coat and fake beard and slips them over the speaker. You can show me now, says the rabbi trickster. Stern, too, emerges as his own self-made rabbi (in a long tradition, it would seem), oracle or exegete of that sacred place outside history where the dead go and the dying long for. One of the most moving poems of this collection, Wait, placed next to last, tells of Jacob who sat by a girl, a girl who was dying in his heart, the soul you might say of Jacob himself, to whom he says, Wait . . . Listen. He knew a thin song that birds steer by. And Jacob sings it slowly, easing the girl, himself, the girl and (or as) himself, out of the world by recalling it. God is sleeping but He is coming. Now. Wait. Remember a leaf. Remember the turnip s sweet spheroid, its little tail. Say how stars live, burning. How the stony icicles of this grotto live, drip, drip, as if breathing. Fire and ice. And, yet, as he says in Testament, Even now children are being born. Or, in White-Throated Sparrow : Always a white-throated sparrow singing on a mountaintop, and somebody there listening to it for the first time. That's what you need to believe . . . The survival manuals don t tell us how to survive life itself, the harness of daily living, the distance between ourselves and what we hope for. This is why Steerage is a book to cherish. Roger Mitchell

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About the Author:

Bert Stern was born (1930) and raised in Buffalo, NY, where he took a B.A. in English in 1952, when the University of Buffalo was still a city college. He went on to take graduate degrees at Columbia and Indiana Universities. For forty years Stern taught literature and writing at Wabash College in Indiana. During that period he also taught for two years at the Aristotelean University of Thessaloniki as Fulbright Professor of American Literature, and at Peking University as an exchange professor. He was the recipient of several major grants, including the Lily Open Faculty Fellowship, which allowed him a year in New York City to study anthroposophy and other mystic traditions; and a fellowship from the University of Michigan for a six-month residency to study 20th Century Chinese History. Upon retirement from teaching, he worked for seven years at chief editor of Hilton Publishing, editing and co-writing health books aimed at African American readers. Presently, he teaches men on probation in a national program called Changing Lives Through Literature, and he and his wife co-edit Off the Grid, a poetry press that publishes books by poets over sixty. Stern’s essays have appeared in journals including The New Republic, Columbia Teachers College Record, Sewanee Review, Southern Review, and the Wallace Stevens Journal. The University of Michigan Press published his pioneer critical book on Wallace Stevens, and he is also author of an environmental monograph called Sludge Disposal in Montgomery County. His chapbook, Silk/The Ragpicker’s Grandson was published by Red Dust in 1998, and his new full-length collection, Steerage, by Ibbetson Street in late June, 2008. His poems have appeared in many journals, including New Letters, Poetry, Beloit Poetry Review. The American Poetry Review, Hunger Mountain, and in eight anthologies. Stern now lives in Somerville, MA, and is the recipient of an Artist s Grant from the Somerville, MA Art Council.

Review:

We ve heard a lot about American individualism; and, in American literature, about writers like Melville, who have what one critic has called, the voice of the imperial self, majestic, heroic, grand. In Walden," Thoreau, though a less imperial writer than Melville, still creates a narrator who lives heroically alone in his tiny cabin in the woods and sees few people. He s a man without family. . . . In contrast Bert Stern writes about his deep connection to the living and dead. He sheds his ego and takes on the voices of his ancestors who immigrated to America from Eastern Europe. Though him, we hear his dead mother s account of the voyage. The family is out to sea; order falls apart; the family loses its center. Sailing in limbo, his mother says, Nobody talked. We could not look at the sea or the dead sky/ above us. We hung between these. We would be here always. In Lotty is Born Stern bears the weight of generations: All suffered to bring me here to this room/ where I write, bigger than the house/ my mother was born in. Beautifully, in fluid lines, he registers a dissolving self: I am somebody s dream . . . let them tell me if they can/ if I am recompense for what they endured. A descendent of those who in steerage endured the stink of of seawater and p..s, animals and human sweat, Stern brings his ancestors into the light. His mother says, my spirit was waiting for me, dancing on the shore. The spirit is feminine, like the Shekinah: the principle of immanence, the divine showing itself. . . . . Stern refers to the Shekinah in Hannah Remembers, notable for its sense of shining, never-ending time: Evenings that went on forever/ still unfolding. In Driving Home from Elizabethtown the poet is gathered into transcendent light: . . . I am ready to fall with the turnings of poplar and oak. Through the windshield even the thin rain that takes on gold light from the sun in its falling is fuel for the burning. Stern s Wait, the long poem, which comprises part five of Steerage, is a triumph, sweet and mysterious. The Shekinah takes the form of a dying girl who lives inside the man Stern calls Jacob. He called out to her as one might/ throw a flower at a star. The girl keeps falling, imperiled, but she comes back to life: she s close as your skin, still humming her tune. Stern gives the girl a voice: She said this. The girl said this now was always as it is now. Nothing is lost. Time is eternal. The poem ends by connecting a tender earthly image the turnip s sweet spheroid, / its little tail with an image of fire and living water: burning stars and icicles dripping as if they were breathing. Besides water-fire-falling-burning poems in which Stern invokes a self s dissolving in radiant never-ending time, there are poems about closely observed everyday life. . . . . Stern writes about his neighbor, Kenny, a Vietnam war veteran; he watches him capably sizing boards with a handsaw,/ setting them snug. But at night, in his dreams, he keeps shooting at a girl who is hardly a shadow. He describes Kenny son, washing his car,/ a black Camarro/ with V8 engine, and the everyday of American life with its skateboards and televisions playing all night in store windows. Tea, which I ll quote in its entirety, demonstrates the lyrical beauty of Stern s poems. Here, the feminine appears as a muse. Tea is also a love poem that recognizes the separateness of the beloved: That clear song was it you while I slept, slipping down in your jade silk to feed the stove with pine and drink your tea alone, at down, as you like to do? Stern coucould be describing his own clear song: tender, lyrical, beautifully phrased. Miriam Levine --miriamlevine.blogspot.com

A vital part of the Somerville-Boston literary scene, Bert Stern s work on the surface just seems like part of the usual poetry game of taking daily reality and turning it into post-modern puzzles: This morning, otherwise idle, I stir milk into sunlight. At once, the maple leaves seem to come from another planet though they sigh to me as before, roused by wind and as real as my fingers. ( Wings, p.30). But don t be fooled, the word-reality games are just part of the much larger worldview. Stern is a twentieth century Jew who is torn between contemporary secularism and reformed Judaism that is light, practical and easy-going, and ancient Judaism that dominated and controlled the totality of life, from which nothing escaped. Part of him longs to go back to ancient times and turn his life into all-inclusive sacredness and discipline. I even suspect that the whole last section of Steerage about Jacob is a kind of re-working of the story of Jacob in the bible: Jacob was holding her and she felt like fire. Death stood to the side, embarrassed. The girl hugged Jacob with her week arms. She said now. She said this. The girl said this now was always as it is now..... God is sleeping but He is coming. Now.Wait. Remember a leaf.... Say how the stars live,burning. How the stony icicles of this grotto live, drip, drip, as if breathing. (p.88). Not the whole Jacob story, but always the sense of The Divine off in the background, waiting to return. As Roger Mitchell points out in his introduction to Steerage, there is a constant awareness in Stern s mind of the paradoxically absence-presence of his ancient Jewish heritage, and he quotes the end of Blackberries, which I see as the key that opens Stern s whole complex world-view: "...I smell my elders almost benign around me, / and I eat the berries they send forth as seed. (p.36) I mean here we are in a secularized, cyberneticized world that all but ignores not just scripture but whole lost ways of daily life, ways of life that forced us into vivid perceptions of the reality that surrounds us, not abstract but very much an almost Buddhistic sense of total Nowness. Steerage is full of memories of the past that are keys to opening up the perception of the present. It s a meditative exercise in scriptural perception that opens up to the voices of the much too ignored past that keeps the Now from turning into the Eden that it should be: "Words redden the skin of things, he sang to the wren at the door, I soothe them with silence I gather until prayer cries out from my bones. But words buzz like flies in swarms. Oy, Adonai, strike down these burning angels that guard Eden s gate ( How Reb Ketzman Got to Heaven, ) p. 43 --dougholder.blogspot.com

Forthcoming --ElizabethMurphy, "Salamander," Winter 2009-'10

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Bert Stern
Editore: Ibbetson Street Press, Somerville, Mass. (2008)
ISBN 10: 0979531381 ISBN 13: 9780979531385
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Descrizione libro Ibbetson Street Press, Somerville, Mass., 2008. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. n/a (illustratore). book. Codice libro della libreria M0979531381

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