What I Can't Bear Losing: Notes from a Life

Gerald Stern, Author
Gerald Stern, Author W. W. Norton & Company $24.95 (170p) ISBN 978-0-393-05818-5
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Part autobiography, part meditative series, this memoir by New Jersey's first poet laureate will appeal mostly to Stern familiars. Others are less likely to be charmed by Stern's aimless prose style.""I don't know if I'm getting these events in the right order or even the right year,"" he writes at one point, and it's evident that he doesn't really care. Instead, Stern, whose collection This Time won the National Book Award in 1998, appears to aim for a feeling of idle chatter--the narrative is digressive, repetitious and bereft of clear chronology. Readers willing to submit patiently to such a raconteur will be compensated with morsels of wisdom. Descriptions of his parents' Sunday morning quarrels, for example, provide a platform for a discourse on Calvinist and Jewish Sabbaths. And ideas about guilt and remorse surface after he recounts how he (innocently?) abetted an acquaintance rape. Chance encounters appear to be a mainstay of Stern's life, and celebrated figures (Casals, Warhol, Orlovitz) appear in walk-ons that diminish them. (Fans of Stern's poetry will also find plenty of information about how he developed his distinctive writing style.) The underlying theme of this memoir--the power and inadequacy of memory--has weight, but Stern's rich meditations are framed by trivia. It's a technique that works well in the author's verse--he can carve a meaningful poem out of a chance encounter with a hotel desk clerk--but, unfortunately, the crafting necessary to achieve such transformations is missing in these prose musings.
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