“It’s so fun to be reading with Gerry,” said poet Alicia Ostriker on Saturday afternoon at Labyrinth Books.
“Gerry” was another poet, Gerald Stern, a Pittsburgh native who has written 17 poetry collections and won the National Book Award, the National Jewish Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, and the Wallace Stevens Award, among others. He currently lives in
Ms. Ostriker, a former English professor at Rutgers University and current resident of Princeton, was born in Brooklyn. Her writing includes 14 poetry collections as well as several books on the Bible, and her prizes include the Paterson Poetry Prize, the William Carlos Williams Award, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, and the National Jewish Book Award.
The two are good friends, and on Saturday they complemented — and complimented — each other with their introductions, rapt attention to the others’ readings, and easy banter. It is not surprising to learn that they are currently sharing an “Arts of Respect” residency at Drew University.
Introducing Ms. Ostriker, Mr. Stern noted that her latest collection of poems, The Book of Life, is a reference to the Jewish belief that, on Yom Kippur, people’s fates for the coming year are sealed in a heavenly book. “Jews are so obsessed with books that their God is even a librarian,” he joked.
Ms. Ostriker described the volume as a “diaspora of poems” that “speak to each other” about what it means to be Jewish, female, and a poet, “yesterday and today.”
Her selections on Saturday afternoon included a poem about being with her relatives Becky and Benny in Far Rockaway, a place that “is past the last subway station” where aging Jews, “warty like alligators,” soak up the sun “as if it were Talmud.”
Segueing from that first generation that was “so full of yearning for the young ones,” she read poems about the joys of being with a grandchild; Allen Ginsburg’s saintliness; being in Israel; and, more than once, arguing with a God who allows tragedies like the bombing of Kosovo to take place. “Judaism is at a turning point,” she observed as she finished. Although we “don’t know how yet,” she suggested that these differences would occur because “women will help imagine it.”
Ms. Ostriker transitioned to her role as introducer, by walking around the podium three times. She described Mr. Stern as “our mad poet … a cross between Whitman and Rimbaud,” who deserves his many prizes.
Reading from a recently published book of essays, Stealing History, Mr. Stern cast an eclectic net as he considered everything from dragonflies to Turkish restaurants in Paris.
Wearing a cap and well-worn jeans, Mr. Stern explained that rather than being “essays,” the works in Stealing History were divided into “sections” that reflect the “chaos you will encounter” in life. “Essays would be more meditative,” he observed. “This gets right to it.”
One reviewer described the book as “patient and wise, but also frenzied, angry — kind of wild. It’s loose and free, but also elegantly written. The work is a trip, full of humor, wit, and wisdom.”
The essays are very personal, as is Mr. Stern’s poetry. A poem about Eleanor Roosevelt in In Beauty Bright imagines Mrs. Roosevelt meeting Vice President Henry Wallace for lunch at One Fifth Avenue so that they can plot on ways to get Franklin to do good. Briefing the audience on Saturday about the poem, Mr. Stern said that as a young man, he regularly read Mrs. Roosevelt’s column, “My Day,” and that he kept a photograph of her next to one of his grandmother. “’Did you know her?’” he reported someone asking. “’Sure,’” he replied. “’But you didn’t,’” said the other. “’Sure I did,’” responded Mr. Stern. “’I wrote a poem about her.’” Other poems were about Whitman in Camden (“Broken Glass”), a little white Fiat (he had to run with it and then jump in to get it started), and Nietzsche (“he suffered from shame and sadness in different cities”).
“I’m a spy on myself,” said Mr. Stern. In their awareness of what’s human, unjust, inexplicable, and very funny, Mr. Stern and Ms. Ostriker are members of the same ring.