Monday, May 25, 2009

Steerage by Bert Stern / Review by Hugh Fox

Steerage by Bert Stern
Ibbetson Street Press
25 School St.
Somerville, Ma. 02143

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Review by Hugh Fox

A vital part of the Somerville-Boston literary scene, on the surface Stern’s work just seems like part of the usual poetry game of taking daily reality and turning it into post-modern puzzles: “This morning, otherwise idle,/I stir milk into sunlight./At once, the maple leaves/seem to come from another planet/though they sigh to me as before,/roused by wind and as real as my fingers.” (“Wings,” p.30).

But don’t be fooled, the word-reality games are just part of the much larger world view. Stern is a twentieth century Jew who is torn between contemporary secularism and reformed Judaism that is light, practical and easy-going, and ancient Judaism that dominated and controlled the totality of life, from which nothing escaped. Part of him longs to go back to ancient times and turn his life into all-inclusive sacredness and discipline. I even suspect that the whole last section of Steerage about Jacob is a kind of re-working of the story of Jacob in the bible:

“Jacob was holding her and she felt like fire./Death stood to the side, embarrassed./The girl hugged Jacob with her week arms./She said now. She said this. The girl said this/now was always as it is now.....//God is sleeping but He is coming./Now./Wait./Remember a leaf....Say how the stars live,burning./How the stony icicles of this grotto live,/drip, drip, as if breathing. “ (p.88).

Not the whole Jacob story, but always the sense of The Divine off in the background, waiting to return. As Roger Mitchell points out in his introduction to Steerage, there is a constant awareness in Stern’s mind of the paradoxically absence-presence of his ancient Jewish heritage, and he quotes the end of “Blackberries,” which I see as the key that opens Stern’s whole complex world-view:

"...I smell my elders almost benignaround me, and I eat the berries they send forth as seed. (p.36)

I mean here we are in a secularized, cyberneticized world that all but ignores not just scripture but whole lost ways of daily life, ways of life that forced us into vivid perceptions of the reality that surrounds us, not abstract but very much an almost buddhistic sense of total Nowness.Testament is full of memories of the past that are keys to opening up the perception of the present. It’s a meditative exercise in scriptural perception that opens up to the voices of the much too ignored past that keeps the Now from turning into the Eden that it should be:

"Words redden the skin of things,he sang to the wren at the door,I soothe them with silence I gatheruntil prayer cries out from my bones.But words buzz like flies in swarms,Oy, Adonai, strike down these burning angelsthat guard Eden’s gate(“How Reb Ketzman Got to Heaven,”) p. 43


*Hugh Fox was born in Chicago in 1932. He spent his childhood studying violin, piano, composition and opera with his Viennese teacher Zerlina Muhlman Metzger. He received a M.A. degree in English from Loyola University in Chicago and his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). He met his first wife, a Peruvian woman named Lucia Ungaro de Zevallos, while at Urbana-Campaign and was a Professor of American Literature from 1958-1968 at Loyola University in Los Angeles. He became a Professor in the Department of American Thought and Language at Michigan State University in 1968 and remained there until he retired in 1999. It was at MSU that he met his second wife Nona Grimes. They were married in 1970. He received Fulbright Professsorships at the University of Hermosillo in Mexico in 1961, the Instituto Pedagogico and Universidad Católica in Caracas from 1964 to 1966, and at the University of Santa Catarina in Brazil from 1978-1980. He met his third wife Maria Bernadete Costa in Brazil in 1978. They've been married for 28 years. He studied Latin American literature at the University of Buenos Aires on and OAS grant and spent a year as an archaeologist in the Atacama Desert in Chile in 1986.

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