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.