Divine Nothingness: Poems by Gerald Stern
W.W. Norton & Company
One of my very favorite poems is “Lucky Life” by Gerald Stern, born and raised in Pittsburgh and now living in Lambertville, New Jersey. It is somewhat embarrassing for me to have discovered this well-known poem only two years ago – I mean, it was published in 1977 – but discover it I did while spending some time down at the Jersey shore. It found me at exactly the most perfect time, as if he was writing directly to me. I thought about it during our vacation this year and I’ve thought about it several times during the last few weeks.
It’s one of those poems that describes exactly what fellow treasured Pittsburgh poet Toi Derricote means when she says, “Gerald Stern has made an immense contribution to American poetry. His poems are not only great poems, memorable ones, but ones that get into your heart and stay there. ”
How could they not, with lines like these?
“Dear waves, what will you do for me this year?
Will you drown out my scream?
Will you let me rise through the fog?
Will you fill me with that old salt feeling?
Will you let me take my long steps in the cold sand?
Will you let me lie on the white bedspread and study
the black clouds with the blue holes in them?
Will you let me see the rusty trees and the old monoplanes one more year?
Will you still let me draw my sacred figures
and move the kites and the birds around with my dark mind?
Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.”
~ from “Lucky Life” by Gerald Stern
Love that. And words like these are what made me pick up Divine Nothingness, Gerald Stern’s latest collection of poetry, published last November.
At 90, this is Gerald Stern’s seventeenth poetry collection and there is a definite sense of the passage of time. Divided into three simple parts (perhaps to symbolize childhood, adulthood, and the final years of life? or a nod to Pittsburgh itself in “Three Stages in My Hometown,” one of the poems contained within?) Divine Nothingness contains the reflections of a life – the places and people and experiences while growing up in Pittsburgh and then, eventually, living in central New Jersey.
This is the third poetry collection of Gerald Stern’s that I have read and I felt he connected more with his reader (at least this one) much more here in Divine Nothingness than he did in Everything Is Burning (2006) or Save the Last Dance (2008). These poems seem much more accessible.
Although I’m an East Coast girl born and bred (including some time living in central New Jersey for what amounted to the equivalent time it takes to sneeze) it’s no surprise that the visages of a Pittsburgh long gone were the ones that came to life for me in these poems.
“…and who and what we were we couldn’t exactly
tell for we were covered in soot and hopped
away from the heat like hot dancers
for we were creating flames for those on the mountain
who drove up the steep sides to see the view
and took their visitors with them so they could express
(“Hell” Jones & Laughlin)
There are the places of this life (‘so let me take you back to the meadow/ where the sidewalks suddenly become a river …”) and the people (“There was a way I could find out if Ruth/ were still alive but it said nothing about/ her ’46 Mercury nor how the gear shift ruined/ our making love ….”) of particular moments experienced during a time gone by. A segue into an acceptance of life’s finality and the self that is left behind.
“…and, like him – like everybody – I scribble words
on the back of envelopes and for that reason
and for two others which I’m too considerate to mention
I’ll be around when you’re gone.”
(from “I’ll Be Around”)
Pittsburghese for “and so forth,” “et cetera,” “and so on.”
My occasional blog feature celebrating all things literary as it relates to Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania region. Here, I talk ‘Burgh-focused books (and review them), literary events, upcoming readings, author interviews and profiles, new releases …n’at.