Lucky Life by Gerald Stern: Revisiting the New Classic
Reviewed by Tayve Neese

In its second publication by Carnegie Mellon University Press, Lucky Life is labeled as a "Classic Contemporary." First published in 1977 by Houghton Mifflin, the reissue of Gerald Stern's poetry is as poignant with its re-release in 1995. Over the eighteen year period from its debut to its second coming, the book proves itself to be a cornerstone in American poetry. Stern's work has only gained momentum since its second publishing, almost a decade ago, as the work in Lucky Life continues to lead its reader through aching human complexities and moments of shared epiphanies.

While many of Stern's poems in the collection are written in the form of the list poem often motivated by beginning line repetitions that occurs as a refrain, what brings meat and complexity to Stern's form is his skill of tension. Where other poets may fall short, Stern is able to create lines that are almost conversational in tone, but are suddenly made taut by way of detail that elevates the mundane into the realm of the sacred. Or, often it is the other way around? the sacred is brought into the realm of the mundane. In "Self-Portrait" Stern falls into his familiar style of repetition that seems like incantation. About Van Gogh he writes "I will think of him in his depressions and exaltations/ I will think of him with yellow straw hat and pipe." The details are first in an elevated state of pondering Van Gogh, and then brought immediately to a focus of the simplistic straw hat. The beginning line repetitions continue throughout the poem. The brilliance is found in lines like, "I will think of myself in my rabbi's suit/ walking across the marshland to my car." It is the simple image of the modern day car that balances the tone that could, without careful skill, become overblown. It is this expert crafting of the line throughout Lucky Life that captivates the reader and allows her to willingly follow Stern through his moments of chaos and beauty.

It is the chaos of loss, often accompanied by beauty by way of nostalgia that occupies much of Stern's work. Loss of physical place is evident in "Strauss Park" when the speaker conveys:

Then you must know how I felt when I saw Stanley's Cafeteria boarded
up and the sale sign out
and if you mourned when you saw the back wall settling
and the first floor gone and the stairway gutted
then you must know how I felt …"

It is not only the physical world that is lost. The speaker in "The Blue Tie" expresses loss over the entirety of a world left behind? a way of life. This changing way of life and society makes moving forward difficult for the speaker who says "More and more I go into the dark/sighing for what I leave behind me/ instead of caring for what lies ahead." It is a longing for what was, as the speaker of "Stepping Out of Poetry" asks, "What would you give for one of the old yellow streetcars/ rocking toward you again though the thick snow?"

While loss of place and a way of life is a motivator of sorrow, it is also the catalyst that allows Stern's speakers to come to terms with acceptance of the aging self. In "At Bickfords" we see the speaker's embrace of both the physical-self and emotional-self saying "You should understand that I use my body now for everything/ whereas formerly I kept it away from higher regions," and, "I am finally ready for the happiness I spent my youth arguing/ and fighting against." The aging speakers of Stern's poems are able to find the beauties of life, as in "Gold Flower," where the Stern writes of the flowers:

"I had never seen them before.
I had walked through gardens all my life without seeing them.
How ignorant I was;
and what I lost through anger and impatience."

There is a celebratory tone, a tone of epiphany, even, when the speaker exclaims, "Dear world of strangers!/ Dear life I half missed!" This embracive attitude toward life shows the speaker's self-acceptance with the world and his own state of being.

While ready for acceptance of self, mortality still looms. Stern's speaker in "Too Much, Too Much," identifies with the death and suffering of the animal realm that also furthers the concept of personal loss of self and the mortality of aging. Stern writes of the poem's spider:

I am light and weightless from being a vegetarian and she
is that way from being dead; we are both bloodless
from having been sucked dry; we are both exhausted from
too many loves and too much wasted silk.

Stern often creates parallels between his speakers and the animal world. The animals are often totem-like, representing the state of mind of Stern's speakers. Often, these animals are dead, in peril, or exhausted. In "On the Island," Stern's speaker longs to "…no longer lie down like a tired dog/ whispering and sighing before I go to sleep at night." In "Peddler's Village," Stern also uses the metaphor of a bird to represent the aging man. Here, his language's heightened lyricism is again captivating. He writes "If she knew how old he was she would bow down/ and kiss his loose feathers/ and listen carefully to his song." Stern's metaphor of the aging speaker as a bird is also seen in "The Blue Necktie where the speaker conveys, "This is when I wear my old blue necktie/ and fly low like a frozen jay looking for happiness." Even the necktie is described as old, as if it is the speaker's evidence of flesh.

Stern's work is not only impacted by self-loss, but also by the loss of the innocent in the animal world who are also exposed to this ever-changing brutal new world. Stern tries to find meaning "Burying an Animal on the Way to New York," in which he writes, "Don't flinch when you come across a dead animal lying on the road; / you are being shown the secret of life." However, Stern struggles with animal death in "Behaving like a Jew" when he writes of a dead possum on the road:

It took only a few seconds?just
seeing him there?with the hole in his back
and the wind blowing through his hair
to get back into my animal sorrow

In contradiction to "Burying a Dead Animal on the Way to New York," the speaker of "Behaving Like a Jew," is "…sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything, / that joy in death, that philosophical understanding of carnage, that/ concentration of the species." This opposing view greatly deepens Stern's work, as it reveals the struggle of the human dilemma. We all teeter between situations charged with emotional intensity trying to justify or reject their meanings. We rejoice in aging and the freedom from youth's intensities, but struggle with physical limitations and change. Stern is able to find the emotional extremes within the human psyche and how we all wish to "be able to talk to someone/ without going from pure joy to silence/ and touch someone/ without going from truth to concealment."