One-Minute Book Reviews

December 30, 2008

Gerald Stern’s ‘Before Eating’ — A Poet’s Rhyming Toast to Life and Death

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:58 pm
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Here’s something you don’t see every day in poetry: a toast to death. Well, not just death. But Gerald Stern’s poem “Before Eating” celebrates life in all its contradictions. And that includes the ultimate contradiction – death.

Stern is in his 80s, and “Before Eating” makes you wonder if he wrote it for his funeral (or perhaps, given that it has 88 lines, as an elegy for a friend who died at 88), though there’s no evidence of it beyond the poem itself, which begins:

Here’s to your life
and here’s to your death

and here’s to coughing
and here’s to breath.

“Before Eating” consists of more than five pages of similarly lively rhymes — it reads like a ditty. At times a wistfulness creeps into the voice of the speaker, who knows that “ … I could go on for / forty pages // listing my joys / and listing my rages, // but I should stop / while I’m still ahead // and make my way / to my own crooked bed …”

But Stern doesn’t maunder. Just when his poem could devolve into a wallow, he pulls the tone back up again:

so here’s to the end,
the final things,

and here’s to forever
and what that brings …

By the end of “Before Eating,” the speaker is no longer toasting death in the abstract but honoring its tangible realities (“and here’s to the pillows / and here’s to the bed”). Yet the poem is never morbid. Some lines are playful. (“Here’s to judge / here’s to Jewry.”) Other lines celebrate food, drink and, obliquely, sex (“desire”). Even the title “Before Eating” suggests that death could be a feast. Whether written for a funeral or not, this poem finds the chord that so many eulogists seek and miss – the notes that celebrate both our numbered days and “forever / and what that brings.”

“Before Eating” appears in Stern’s recent Save the Last Dance: Poems (Norton, 91 pp., $23.95). Other poems in the collection include “The Preacher,” an adaptation of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and elegies for or homages to the poets William Wordsworth, Muriel Rukeyser and Federico Garcia Lorca. Stern won the 1998 National Book Award for Poetry for This Time. He was the first poet laureate of New Jersey, where he lives.

© 2008 All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 28, 2008

Good Children’s Poems About January

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:24 pm
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Do poets have trouble finding rhymes for “hangover”? Or believe that all kids go to bed early on Dec. 31? For whatever reason, there are few good children’s New Year’s Day, compared with the many about Christmas, Thanksgiving and other major holidays.

But John Updike has written a lovely poem about January that appears in his A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pp., ages 4-8), and in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House, 248 pp., $22.99, ages 12 and under), selected by Jack Prelutsky. “January” doesn’t mention the New Year and instead celebrates the charms of the month with rhyming iambic quatrains: “The days are short, / The sun a spark / Hung thin between / The dark and dark.” The Random House Book of Poetry for Children also includes Sara Coleridge’s poem “The Months,” which consists of 12 rhyming couplets, one for each month, that begin: “January brings the snow, / makes our feet and fingers glow.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 28, 2007

Junior Kroll Celebrates New Year’s Eve and Other Special Days in Witty, Rhyming Poems for Children for Ages 4 and Up

  

Junior Kroll had a date

With Grandfather Kroll to celebrate

New Year’s Eve, home alone,

Just two guys on their own …

 

Junior Kroll. By Betty Paraskevas. Illustrated by Michael Paraskevas. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 36 pp., varied prices.

By Janice Harayda

In the realm of picture books, New Year’s Eve is an outcast, perhaps because publishers think that 4-to-8-year-olds should be in bed by the time the fun starts. And yet, young children often do celebrate the day, either in their own way or their parents’.

Betty Paraskevas acknowledges this in Junior Kroll, a collection of 15 witty, rhyming poems about a mischievous little rich boy who lives in monied seaside enclave resembling the present-day Hamptons. By the give-me-camouflage-or-give-me-death standards of many children, Junior Kroll is a fashion anachronism: He wears a bow tie, white shirt, navy-blue short-pants suit, and the sort of bowl-shaped haircut that used to be called a Buster Brown (which, to judge by his infectious smile, he never minds). In the poem “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” he adds a paper hat, and he and his grandfather spend a lovely evening together eating pizza and watching W.C. Fields on the VCR as the year ends:

The pizza arrived along with the sleet

That tapped on the windows and danced on the street.

In paper derbies they watched TV,

And they dined with the king of comedy.

Other poems in Junior Kroll have a rhythm just as lively, and though they are about people with money, they aren’t materialistic: They celebrate warm and often amusing ties to family and friends. Junior Kroll cheers up an ailing neighbor in “The Old Lady Who Lived Down the Lane.” And in “The Thanksgiving Day Guest,” he gets to know his mother’s perhaps underappreciated great-aunt Flo:

She told him of traveling to Istanbul

On the Orient Express,

Long ago when women reporters

Were rare with United Press.

 Junior Kroll was popular and well-reviewed when it first appeared more than a decade ago, so it’s easy to find online and in libraries if not in bookstores, and it’s worth tracking down in the new year if you can’t find it by the time you break out the noisemakers on Monday night. “The Thanksgiving Day Guest” ends with Flo’s departure on the day after the feast:

The next morning her cab was waiting

Under a cold gray sky.

From the doorway Mrs. Kroll watched Junior kiss

A remarkable old lady good-bye.

Published: 1993 (first hardcover edition)

Furthermore: The adventures of Junior Kroll appeared in comic-strip form in East Hampton’s Dan’s Papers and in Hemisphere magazine on United Airlines. Betty and Michael Paraskevas are a mother-and-son team who have written more than a dozen books and produced several animated television series en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Paraskevas. They created the Tangerine Bear, the subject of two poems in Junior Kroll and an ABC home video Christmas special.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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