Publisher: Carnegie-Mellon University Press; First edition (August 1, 1997)
Review by: Stephen Page
The lines in Gerald Stern’s poems in Lucky Life are long and sweeping. His poetry covers broad topics, most notably biblical and scientific history, racial prejudice, social behavior, social injustice, differences and similarities between rural and urban life, acceptance of aging and mortality, death or preparing for death, and regeneration. Stern uses the “I” not as narcissistic ploy but to project himself into the world and become the link between it and the the reader. The extended lines reflect poem content.
The collection begins with a wonderful poem, “The Power of Maples”:
If you want to live in the country you have to understand the power
You have to see them sink their teeth into the roots of the old
You have to see them force the sycamores to gasp for air.
You have to see them move their thick hairs into the cellar.
And when you cut your great green shad pole
you have to be ready for it to start sprouting in you hands;
you have to stick it in the ground like a piece of willow;
you have to plant your table under its leaves and begin eating.
The poem is about survival, how something that is strong might be perceived as destructive in order to exist. But, the poem is also about the will to live, and regeneration. Even after a maple is cut, its trunk and branches sprout anew.
The second poem follows a similar yet different theme, “The Last Self Portrait”:
Now I know why I have kept this orange flower wrapped up in tissue
and this faded picture and this rotting telephone number;
and now I know why I hang on to this wool jacket
when the threads are already showing and the lining is ruined;
and now I know why I empty my pockets
before I go to sleep and stare at my face in the mirror
like a white-haired painter going back to England
with four old suitcase and a leather trunk
full of ancient sketchbooks and stiff brushes,
holding my chin up for the last self portrait.
Here stern is readying himself for death. He is accepting that he is about to sit for his last self portrait (metaphorically speaking of course). He has kept the things that make him happy, make him feel comfortable. He wants to go into the final canvas content.
“At Bickford’s,” one of the best of the collection, Stern says:
You should understand that I use my body now for everything
Whereas formerly I kept it away from higher regions . . .
I am finally ready for the happiness I spent my youth arguing and
Twenty years ago . . .
My great specialty was darkness then
And radiant sexual energy . . .
Now when light drips on me I walk around without tears.
— Before long I am going to live again on four dollars a day…
There is just so much feeling left in me for my ole ghost . . .
I will lose half my hatred . . .
And let any beliefs that want to over take me . . .
I will sit and read in my chair;
I will wave from my window.
Stern’s body is not what it used to be, yet he is content to be old. He accepts it. He is ready for retirement and the pittance he will survive on. He accepts it all. With his acceptance comes awareness. He will lose (half) his hatred and former prejudices. He will open his mind to new philosophies, those that may come. He will sit in the window like most retired people, read, wave as the world goes by, smile; but Stern will be happy with what he has become.
Very similar thematically is the poem, “I Am So Exhausted”:
I am so exhausted I can barley lift my arms over my head to pull the
I try to pick up the soaked logs but my fingers slide over the bark
And my knees get wet from falling into the hillside.
My wife is across the road glorying in her winter aconites.
Spring to her is setting out the onions
and moving the straw and resting on the wall.
We meet in the muck, like two crayfish;
I tip my axe, she tips her forsythia.
It will take us time to learn to live together again,
to learn what to do with other in the daylight,
to learn to talk again, without doors.
It will take us time to remember each other’s secrets,
where the lilies are buried, where the moles are.
It will take us time to fine our sadness,
and scrape the stones from our tongues,
and turn up the dirt for our slippery hearts.
Stern is tired and old. His wife, however, is glorying in the winter of her life, and with her glory is hope for at least one more season, spring just around the corner. They rendezvous, two entities that love one another but are different by nature. They have been separated for some time or some reason. Perhaps just for the morning, perhaps for many years. He is the axe carrying provider, she the nurturer. By natural law they should be at odds, she the creator he the destroyer, yet, they love one another and find a way to understand their differences. Finally, in the winter of their lives, they learn how to communicate, even as they are turning up the earth for their graves. This is a great analogy for many things—e.g. race, gender, culture—the two entities representing what happens when beings evolve or grow over a period of time in separate places or together with separate ideals. They are similar, yet different. Stern wants us all to learn how to get along.
“On the Island” is also a poem about old age, but more so:
…after cheating the world for fifty years these two old men
touch the rosy skin under their white hair and try to remember
the days . . .
before the Jews came onto the island
They are worried about the trees in India
and the corruption of the Boy Scouts
and the climbing interest rate,
but most of all they spend their time remembering
the beach the way it was it the the early thirties
when all the big hotels here were shaped like Greek churches.
Me, I think about salt.
and how my life will one day be clean and simple
if only I can reduce it all to salt,
how I will no longer lie down like a tired dog. . .
and touch someone
without going from truth to concealment.
Salt is the only thing that lasts on this island.
It gets into the hair, into the eyes, into the clothes,
into the wood, into the metal.
Everything is going to disappear here but the salt.
The flags will too, the piers,
the gift shops the golf courses, the clam bars,
and the telephone poles and the rows of houses and the string of cars.
I like to think of myself turned to salt
and all that I love turned to salt;
I like to think of coating whatever is left
with my own tongue and fingers.
I like to think of floating again in my first home,
still remembering the warm rock
and its slow destruction,
still remembering the first conversion to blood
and the forcing of the salt into those cramped vessels.
Two old men are sitting about talking about world events and how time has changed the place where they live—‘well, it’s not like the old days’—you know the conversation. They obviously think themselves worldly and speak about architecture and deforestation and moral degeneration, yet they are racially prejudiced. The narrator thinks about salt, one of the oldest chemicals on earth. Salt has been around long before man, long before man became tool makers and made furniture, long before the advent of metal casting; and salt will be around a lot longer than the things man can make with his hands. Salt’s longevity outlasts even that bipod beast who thinks he rules and decides the fate of the world. In the end, all our possessions, all our creations, all of us too will be gone—no, not gone, turned back into salt. The earth will survive. Not man. The narrator remembers (in the sense that time is relative in the collective conscious) when the earth was being formed, when single-celled animals propagated in the hot salty pools amongst the warm rocks and eventually evolved into warm-blooded mammals.
There are many other poems throughout the collection that speak about the absurdity of racial prejudice, social injustice, the temporality of human life in comparison to the earth and the universe. Stern in this collection is trying to find a place in this irrational world. In his late middle age he is trying to find meaning. He is trying to connect to the world and I think he realizes that the only way to do that is to live in the moment. He leaps off the page into the world and takes the reader with him. He says: live life now, smell the flowers, forget all your preconceptions, your socialization, your hatred for those different than you, your fear of things you do not understand. Open up. Love one another. Love everything. Embrace life.
You can buy the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Lucky-Classic-Contemporary-Gerald-Stern/
Stephen Page is the Author of The Timbre of Sand and Still Dandellions. He holds a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from Bennington College. Stephen writes in a telephone pole-view room in Argentina, that is, when he is not teaching English for bus fare or constructing an elaborate Hot Wheels track around his writing desk. He used to be a bit of a vagabond, that is until his wife straightened him out. You can find him on the web at this link: htttp://stephenmpage.wordpress.com/author/smpages/