It seems apt to begin a tribute to the poet Gerald Stern—who died last month, at the age of ninety-seven—with a memory. A memory of a place, and specifically a place in Pittsburgh, where Stern was born and raised. As an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, also Stern’s alma mater, I lived on the ninth story of an apartment building called Webster Hall. Though the apartments themselves were entirely without character, evidence of the building’s former life as a hotel endured in its elegant, imposing Beaux-Arts façade and its lobby’s ornately patterned carpet and gold-trimmed furniture. Only after I graduated and moved out did I learn that Webster Hall had been a favorite haunt of Stern and his fellow Pittsburgh poet Jack Gilbert. At a reading I attended, about a month before Gilbert’s death, in 2012, Stern disclosed that the two had habitually convened in the hotel’s restaurant to drink tea and talk poems. Anywhere you stand, especially in a city, someone who mattered in some way surely once stood there before, but, still, this revelation lent a certain enchantment to my recollection of my time at Webster Hall—a sense that the past was present; that poetry lurked in every corner and crevice, just waiting to be recognized.
This is the singular magic of Stern’s rhapsodic yet tellurian writing, which The New Yorker began publishing in 1976. In “Three Tears,” his first contribution to the magazine, the act of sight is a kind of transfiguration, a simple natural image conjuring a separate but somehow correspondent realm of historical knowledge: “If you have seen a single yellow iris / standing watch beside the garden,” it begins, “then you have seen the Major General weeping / at four in the morning in his mother’s Bible.” The world is refracted, and the self reflected, in what we see. Whatever the eye looks at, it cannot escape the associations and limitations of the “I,” which inevitably becomes a part of the image: “What would it have been like,” Stern asks, in the poem’s last section, “if I could have let my eye go freely down the line / choosing its own movement and its own light?” That roving spirit returns in “96 Vandam,” which opens, “I am going to carry my bed into New York City tonight / . . . / I am going to push it across three dark highways / or coast along under six hundred thousand faint stars.” Beauty and truth cannot be forced to the surface; can only be encountered, even stumbled upon, by a willing beholder in the course of living: “I want to be as close as possible to my pillow / in case a dream or a fantasy should pass by.” But this potential brush with the sublime is of a piece with the city’s workaday textures, as the speaker equally wants “to fall asleep on my own fire escape / and wake up dazed and hungry / to the sound of garbage grinding in the street below / and the smell of coffee cooking in the window above.”
Stern’s verse is heavily informed by his roots—in Pittsburgh, as the child of immigrants, as a worker and an activist for labor and civil rights—but is also imbued with cosmopolitanism and freewheeling whimsy. The poet, one feels, has travelled the globe without forgetting his capacity for wonder. In such poems as “Little White Sister,” “Bee Balm,” and “Kissing Stieglitz Goodbye,” his voice bears powerful traces of Walt Whitman, and, more apocryphally, of the Wandering Jew; at once outcast and brother to all, he belongs everywhere and nowhere. Stern channelled Whitman—whom he called “a dear comrade”—at a 1992 reading of “Leaves of Grass” held in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, with the poets Lucille Clifton, Allen Ginsberg, Sharon Olds, and others on hand to mark the centennial of old graybeard’s death. “I couldn’t tell if it was Whitman or Stern doing the reading,” C. K. Williams remarked.
The raw sensitivity on full display in “What It Is Like”—“For me it’s always / the earth; I’m one of the addicts; I can hardly / stand the dreaminess; I get burnt, I blister // at night as others do in the day”—also figures poignantly in “Most of My Life,” in which Stern’s observations of a cardinal morph into a strange, moving portrait of his mother. “I would have held up a lily / for her for she is not to blame; I would have / dried her tears,” Stern writes. “I did it for most of my life.” This is what Deborah Garrison described, in a review of Stern’s “This Time: New and Selected Poems,” the winner of the 1998 National Book Award for Poetry, as his “aesthetic of tenderness.” However, she points out, “the awareness of brutality in all things seems to be the source of his lyricism.” “March 27,” from the following year, inventories a gardener devoted to his toil: “he used a stick and he would / stay there at least an hour—swelling or no swelling— / and he would finish his scraping, God or no God.” Stern carried his proclivity for the bittersweet into the twenty-first century with poems like “Doris”—a wryly heartbreaking treatment of a youthful attempt at romance—and “Sylvia,” an exuberant elegy for his sister, who died during childhood:
Haunted by Sylvia’s death, by the Holocaust, by the wars dubbed, in “Asphodel,” “dumb butcheries,” Stern was what Garrison called a “survivor by virtue of geography,” and of luck. Conscious that oblivion was always an alternative, he relished the particularities of reality and reverie alike, revelling in the mundane as well as the surreal. Over the decades, his work’s idiosyncratic music heightened, celebrating the ever more marvellous accumulation of experience in poems such as “Lorca”—“it was / in John Jay Hall in 1949 / that Geraldo from Pittsburgh made a personal connection, / for they were both housed in Room 1231 / twenty years apart not counting the months”—“Independence Day,” and “Nietzsche”: “there is so much to say about him I want to / live again so I have time to study him.”
Stern’s career-long preoccupation with memory and history becomes especially potent in his late work, as does his urgently humanistic politics. “The World We Should Have Stayed In,” from 2014, refers both to the Jewish immigrant community in which Stern was raised and to the old country, mourning what is lost to the inexorable ravages of time, as well as to persecution, displacement, and assimilation: “I was / born at the end of an era, I hung on with / my fingers then with my nails,” Stern writes, to “the world we should have stayed in, for in America / you burn in one place, then another.” “Gelato,” three years later, closes with a sudden meditation on poetry’s intertwinement with the crimes and tragedies of the twentieth century: “I was / older than Pound was when he went silent / and kissed Ginsberg, a cousin to the Rothschilds, / who had the key to the ghetto in his pocket, / one box over and two rows up, he told me.” Nostalgia, in these poems, is cut with a moral clarity that is achieved not through didacticism but through narrative detail.
The late Meena Alexander, discussing Stern’s “Adonis” on The New Yorker’s poetry podcast, in 2018, mentions the poem’s slippery negotiation between remembrance and imagination. “Adonis” resurrects an old acquaintance of Stern’s, an aspiring musician and a dishwasher at a diner on Broadway and 103rd—the same intersection, Alexander notes, as her first writing studio upon immigrating to the United States—but incompletely, indeterminately: “I can’t even remember / his name.” As Stern puts it in “No House,” from 2019, “the mind, / which I love above all things, is so sloppy.” “Adonis” directly takes up a Romantic tradition, making a muse of the young artist. Meanwhile, “No House” contemplates the process of composition, eternally humbling even with a lifetime of practice: “the poet, whatever / his honors, always writes his new poems / in obscurity, he’s always a beginner.” Immortality is an illusion—or, as Alexander comments, “Death is the great migration; that’s the border that you cross. Maybe you come back, but only in memory, in the memory of others,” which is inherently flawed, and all the more beautiful for it.
The last poem Stern published in The New Yorker, in the January 6, 2020, issue, was “Warbler,” a lament for a dead bird preserved in his freezer. The warbler’s voice, and the poet’s, outlasts the body—“like all birds / they sing when they’re buried”—carrying defiantly beyond the grave, not lifting to the heavens but permeating the earth itself: “He was lifelike stiff and unapologetic / and he sang from time to time, dead or not, / a ‘rising trill,’ as the book says, / in the upper levels where the worms are.” In Stern’s generous, practical, and fanciful philosophy, that audience of worms is no less holy than one of angels. ♦