In Beauty Bright, Gerald Stern’s latest collection of poems, is meditative, celebratory, intimately sad, and funny. Stern deals in terms of time, gathering up old years and sticking them in with new ones. Midway through a poem that seems to be taking place in the present, he’ll admit: “it is probably / April and it’s probably twenty, thirty / years ago” and then he’ll move along, keeping the focused, wild momentum that is so familiar in his writing. The span—temporal, geographical, tonal—of a Stern poem is immense. He moves from the Ruhr to New Jersey to the Mississippi; from 1936 to the American Revolution; from violence to a place where “everyone hugged / the person to his right although the left was / not out of the question”. He sorts through his personal past in the same lines that he grapples with the pasts of entire cultures and countries.
Stern is 87 now, and has written seventeen collections of poetry. He writes about his age often—“for I am going in reverse / and my slow mind has ruined me”; “Too late now to look for houses / to give readings, to flirt, to eat blueberries / to dance the polka”—but he is also preoccupied with the fullness of things that have already happened. He recalls streets and people in clipped and intense detail, occasionally confessing “I don’t know what the year was” or musing “someone should mark / the day, I think it was August 20th”. The poems of In Beauty Bright are rich and strange, and they barrel forward with a strong, intuitive rhythm. Stern himself is as observant and expansive as ever, naming what used to be around him with the same care as he names what’s still around, proclaiming “there is so much to say about him I want to / live again,” granting each small thing and year its due attention.
–Maeve Nolan, Poetry Editor