on Stealing History, essays by Gerald Stern (Trinity University Press)
“I don’t know what this book is,” Gerald Stern says from within Stealing History, “a way of remembering, a disgrace. I try desperately now to reach out to those I want or who want me before it’s too late.” Following his 2009 collection of personal and literary essays, What I Can’t Bear Losing, the new title returns to his favorite topics and obsessions – family history, friendship, mortality, Jewishness, travel, cities, oppression and discrimination, and of course, poetry and poets.
But Stealing History differs in form from its predecessor. It comprises 84 titled “essays” but it reads as a single voluble narrative written over a period of several months in 2010. It wanders and often circles back, to proclaim and joke and apologize, and to kibbitz and bristle and mourn. In an earlier essay, Stern insisted that both he and his poetry are “not accountable as a result of my apparent influences.” He had emerged whole if bedraggled in middle age, having discovered a sound loquacious enough to draw in an entire world and its history as he saw it – because he realized “it was my own loss and my own failure that were my subject matter, and I could only start building in the ruins.”
That now grizzled amazement, at having stumbled on – been granted -- a way to blab winningly in public, proving that love dwells at the core of himself despite the world’s and his own impediments, animates Stealing History. He says, “I love to discover, in every poet I read, his – or her – mystery, the thing without which he is not he, or she is not she, and the thing with which he, she, is.” Now at age 88, Stern rambles and remembers in order to indicate, through digression, the thing he is.
The stories begin by recalling a park bench in Pittsburgh, his hometown, and conclude on a seat in the Port Authority Bus Terminal as he waits for the ride back to his house in Lambertville, New Jersey. In between, Stern comments on everything from Spinoza and Richard Pryor (fellow trouble makers who invented their own lives) to the Haiti earthquake and the BP oil spill, and from the New York of Henry James, Henry Miller and Simone de Beauvoir to memories of Lucille Clifton, James Schuyler, Jack Gilbert, Larry Levis, Marie Ponsot, Etheridge Knight, and Linda Gregg, quoting their poems.
In a segment titled “My Big Mouth,” attributing his occasionally intrusive social behavior to Tourette’s syndrome, he says, “When you combine my wild talking with my self-pity and quick resentment you end up hopeless before my onslaught.” But he takes power from his faults. His writings, I think, are both modulations of the urge to blurt and tactical targetings of his antagonists. But stretches of Stealing History are relaxed and sweet, especially those pieces that recall his friends.
But the spiciest parts are the prickliest – and the collection’s title is itself an accusation: “I have respect for the Passion, even wonder, though I’m tired of the Baptists and Catholics, of all sorts, stealing history, and even if every religion, every culture, endlessly steals, none has been so relentless, so murderously affectionate as they …” He mentions and twice repeats the experience of having been beaten up on the way to kindergarten “for killing Christ.” The “education of the poet” was a coming to terms with what both he and the world are actually like. No wonder he says “my favorite questions are sociological and political” – but his responses are personal. He takes care to specify the flavor of his spirituality. For the Jew, revelation occurred a long time ago when God revealed Himself and said “I am.” Since then, the Jew has been asking, “What did He mean by that?”
Fundamentalisms of any sort raise Stern’s blood pressure but especially the prejudices and ignorance stoked by the Vatican and its church elders during the twentieth century. And then, there are the Poles and their complicit satisfaction in the murders of over 3,000,000 Jews: “They are more or less in denial, in spite of overwhelming evidence. Always the Germans are blamed, of the Russians.” It had long occurred to me that Milosz in his prose never regards the Polish Jews as Polish despite how integrated they were in Poland’s economy and culture (“56 percent of the doctors and 43 percent of the teachers were Jewish”). Stern is the first poet I’ve encountered who is willing to challenge Milosz’s perspective:
“I just reread the interview with Milosz on Polish-Jewish relations, published in Tikkun in 1988, and I am struck by, what seems to me, how weary and bored he is by the questions, perhaps the questioner. Sometimes even desperate – as if Milosz had not endlessly agonized over Europe and its horrors … the mutual resentment Czeslaw refers to implies equal strength of Jews and Poles which was clearly never the case; and I have to disagree when he says that the Holocaust was ‘pagan’ and the result of ‘half-baked scientific ideas’ and that neither had roots nor connections with Christianity and its history.”
Some 243 pages into Stealing History, Stern discovers its nagging preoccupation: “But this thing about neighbors might, after all, be the secret text of this book.” Knowing that the Poles referred to the Jews as “neighbors,” he forcefully objects to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Throughout these essays, Stern reminisces about the neighbors and acquaintances who have lived nearby -- in Pittsburgh, Lambertville, New York City and Iowa City. “The question remains always who, and what, are neighbors,” he writes. “In many cases people nearby, or among us, are ignored, or invisible; not counted because of race, illness, age, or economic status. They are not ‘neighbors’ and we don’t have to ‘love’ them.”
Stern is an old Leftie of the first degree, but his darkest premonition isn’t mitigated by the promises of the nanny state or Portlandia dreaming: “The day will come when we either will lift our sharpened hatchets against our fellow humans or – the whole other way – we will retreat in horror, even in the killing of the blooded other animals we now call poultry, cattle, and game, and kill, or murder, by number, by belt, by hammer, by hook, in one Chicago after another.” We will either kill or just live with the horror of ourselves. The premonition is a vision of the present.
Yet Stern will suddenly lean back on his heels, as if his heated voice is too extreme or out of proportion to the lives of ordinary people around him. He mentions having spit on Ahmadinejad’s picture in a magazine, but then “I felt shocked by what my mouth did.” And: "The truth is, I hate being a scoffer, a skeptic, and an agnostic." There is a chapter on comedy. Of himself he says, “I was comic, but my poems generally weren’t.” There are humorous touches throughout. And there is profoundly deep appreciation for his life. “In memory,” he writes, “the issue is always to have the eight combination to the lock. The most joyous thing is when the tumblers relent and the lock open.” He must have enjoyed himself while writing this book.
As for mortality, in an early brief chapter he meditates on a dead dragonfly lying on the dashboard of his ten-year old Honda. But death is a presence until the final chapter. Gerald Stern’s reckonings in Stealing History not only sound necessary but, even in their diversity and variety, form a tirelessly querying, loving and kvetching whole:
“I myself come from a religious half-tribal, half-philosophical, indefensible and dear in spite of anything and everything. I am eighty-five and God knows I will be still soon – liberating into a raucous world – and I don’t want to just sit on a mantle and I do not want to half-hear the Aramaic prayer over my box. And I want the box to be made of cedar.”
[Published November 6, 2012. 314 pages, $17.95 paperback original]