THE RED COAL by Gerald Stern


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Getting rid of baggage,/ living in dreams,/ finding a way to change, or sweeten, my clumsy life."" These last lines of the last poem here (a successor collection to Stem's much-lauded Lucky Life) effectively reflect both the strengths and limitations of this new book. To Stem's admirers, his work is that of ""the happy genius of my household"" found originally in William Carlos Williams' wonderful ""Danse Russe"": his funky voice seems to be shaking itself ecstatically dry like a wet dog; he mugs like an old-time Yiddish actor; he makes existential dramas manageable; he's a veritable joy-stealer, walking through cities--New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Paris; he makes comparisons--almost all of them grateful--between the better present and the worse past. And all this savoring lip-smacking is undeniably attractive. On the other hand, Stem has moved hardly an inch past the suburbanite poems of a Fifties poet like W. D. Snodgrass--except that Stern is an abashed confessor instead of a darkly troubled one. And in a poem like ""Your Animal""--in praise of ducks (and the eating of them)--Stern's faith in his own daily life as sufficient stuff for poetry moves from infectious to foolish, ending up in silly, egocentric declarations: ""This is a poem against gnosticism. . ./ It is my poem against the starving heart/ It is my victory over meanness."" When Stem mutes this brassy self-assertion--as he does in ""Once More the Lambs,"" ""My Hand,"" and ""Waving Goodbye""--he very smoothly approaches a Williams-ish astonishment at the variant beauties of the world; external perfections wrestle down the snorting grappler inside. Usually, however, that's not the case here--and the overall impression is one of eager postures but few graces.

Pub Date: April 22nd, 1981
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin