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 30, 2007

Cheers to Paul Dickson’s ‘Toasts,’ a Book of Ideas for New Year’s Eve and Beyond

“To champagne – a beverage that makes you see double and feel single.”

From Paul Dickson’s Toasts

Blame it on stage fright, cultural illiteracy, or the popularity of nonalcoholic drinks like green tea and Grape Vitaminwater. But the ability to make an artful toast is going the way of fine penmanship. If you’d like to keep it alive, you’ll find inspiration in Paul Dickson’s Toasts: Over 1,500 of the Best Toasts, Sentiments, Blessings, and Graces (Crown, $19) pauldicksonbooks.com, illustrated by Rollin McGrail. Many similar books focus on one occasion or group, such as wedding or Irish toasts. Dickson casts a wider net, offering ideas for events that range from retirement parties to everyday meals. He notes that toasts can be “sentimental, cynical, lyric, comic, defiant, long, short, or even a single word.” And he gives examples of all, including some that fit New Year’s Eve. Looking for an alternative to “Cheers” and “L’chayim”? What about, “To champagne – a beverage that makes you see double and feel single”? If you’ll be celebrating with a spouse who makes that one risky, you could try: “May all your troubles during the coming year be as short as your New Year’s resolutions.” You can find ideas for toasts for occasions other than the end of 2007 by going to the page for Toasts on www.amazon.com and using the “Search Inside This Book” tool.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

/www.janiceharayda.com/  

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