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.

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