A View from the Tenth Decade
By Gerald Stern
Trinity University Press.
224 pp. $18.95.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
64 pp. $24
Here are two famous poets, both with many ties to Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. One, Gerald Stern, is 92; Death Watch is a prose memoir. C.K. Williams died at 78 of multiple myeloma in 2015. Falling Ill is his last book of poems, written as he died, living his dying. Both are known for their flowing, openhearted, truth-telling lines, like another local: Walt Whitman of Camden. Although last things are in view, in such hands this truth-telling is elevating.
Start with Jerry. Let him embrace his dear friend Charles, for Jerry is known for his wide embrace. Death Watch embraces 29 essays, variously published, on a range of things, including Jerry's Hebrew name (Ya'akov), his work as a labor and civil rights activist, the loves of his life (several called Shoshana, as in the Shoshana and the Elders episode in the Book of Daniel), the afterlife, graveyards in his longtime hometown of Lambertville, displaced persons (in a tremendous essay, he calls displacement "a general human condition in our time"), and his deceased sister Sylvia.
What a life, what soul. In these essays, "everything is a digression" (as in Mark Twain's Autobiography). Yet Jerry somehow makes them hold together. My favorite is "Transgressive Behavior." He relieves himself on the Arch of Titus in Rome, flops on Walt Whitman's bed in the museum while a pal distracts a gatekeeper. He calls it "criminality lite."
He's right, it's a comic collection, as "the writing is, if anything, comedic," and "no one dies during the writing." This book is a nine-decade grin. Jerry gets a kick out of present and past.
He calls C.K. Williams "the conscience of his generation," a man "kind, extremely generous," with "the withering voice of a prophet." Charles was a friend; I agree all the way.
Poet C.K. Williams. Photo: Jessie Williams Burns
Falling Ill, if you let it happen, is likely to harrow and haunt you. Like all his poetry, it tells the truth as near as it can come. Absent are his long Whitmanic lines. Instead, we have unpunctuated poems, five stanzas each, of three relatively short lines per stanza, as in "Rage":
Long time since rage groundless anger
engulfed me for no nameable reason with
no apparent actual cause but itself its own
frustration fury that makes me want to destroy
no matter what to assuage the anger
I feel toward my affliction
That lack of punctuation lends them an air of nakedness, vulnerability, terror, tumbling forward. He's not brave - he hates the notion. He doesn't want to go and he's struggling. The mind ticks over, moment by moment, witnessing, wondering. Charles told the truth all the way.
In poems such as "The Body" and "Better," the speaker realizes his body is doing what it will without consulting him. He is a man like most of us, assuming he was his body. So where is the me now?
doesn't my body possess
me hasn't my me succumbed so to my body
that I possess nothing in this realm of owning
and the real question is if my body possesses me
is it capable of speaking without my permission
I take back what I said. There is bravery in refusing pretense, of saying you are enraged, scared, humiliated. The naked are brave not to seek cover. Down to its final, unbearable explosion of love, this book holds the wavering mirror steady. Many poets have gone out writing poems, but few have been such a poet.
As for Jerry, he calls on his children and grandkids to "make fun of war, flags, uniforms, weapons, pulpits, oval offices, square ones, oblong ones, circular ones; and robes, and titles." (I'm smiling; you?) He loves the towns along the Delaware River, the drive north up 611. A bright-eyed socialist, he writes: "Goddamn American Capitalism and God bless the homeless. And give them long coats."
Comic memoir; lacerating deathward tumble. Why the elevation after reading them? Again and again, they drive us to human beauty, to what's great about us. Prose and poetry, comedy and suffering, these books proclaim that. They raise us up.