AMERICAN SONNETS

Gerald Stern, Author . Norton $22 (69p) ISBN 978-0-393-05084-4

As part and parcel of a gruffly expansive plain style, Stern has worked through his Jewish, Rust Belt and working-class roots in book after book, while remaining open to experience from anywhere. Those roots, and the rest of his personal history, dominate this winningly outspoken, if misleadingly titled, sequence, whose "sonnets" are really unrhymed, free-verse poems of 20 or so lines: most consist of a single, sinuous sentence exploring a single moment in Stern's past, "explaining what was opened in my life/ and what was destroyed," and linking his joys and travails to those of his generation. "Alone" remembers when "I wore two pairs of socks and hid my money"; "You" recalls "the smell of/ snow in 1940, mixed as it was with/ coal fumes." Clocks, dogs, dandelions, the Pennsylvania coal country, Manhattan, fellow writers, students, wives, parents, children, gangster cousins and even (in one vivid adaptation) Francois Villon receive exploration and homage. The one-long-sentence strategy avoids monotony by varying its tones, which include the comic ("A string-bean is born every second") and the raunchily sexual, as well as the mournful and the lyrical: he concludes with "a star of the fourth magnitude/ surrounded by planets, shining on all of us." Stern's verbal strategies land him, this time out, somewhere between W.S. Merwin and Philip Levine; their fans and the fans of Stern's previous verse will surely enjoy these very personal poems. (Apr.)

Forecast:Stern won a National Book Award for This Time: New and Selected Poems (1998), which should still bring readers to this book, but his book-every-two-years pace (Last Blue appeared in paperback 10 months prior to this title's release) may soften the Stern market.

Reviewed on: 03/18/2002
Release date: 04/01/2002
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