Not God After All

by Gerald Stern

Autumn House Press 2004, a review by Mike James

Gerald Stern continues to show why he is counted in the front rank of American poets. Over the past year, Stern has published a new book of poems, American Sonnets, and his first collection of personal essays, What I Can’t Bear Losing. Both books are extraordinary. They are as good as anything he has ever written and, in some ways, better. Like W.S. Merwin and John Ashbery, who are both of his generation, Stern refuses to sit comfortably on his well-earned laurels. His new book, Not God After All, is a collection of 228 aphorisms, with illustrations by the artist Sheba Sharrow. It is a very good book. Stern says in the book’s introduction that the aphorisms were written over a two-week period in the spring of 2002. In this way, the book can be read as one creative act. The aphorisms record the daily verbal and imagistic leaps that take place within Stern’s mind. Here are a few examples:

A fire I understand, but how do you make a flood? Don’t make God come too fast, be a bastard a while longer. To be managed, that is the most threatening thing of all.

What is so unique about these little koan bursts? For one thing, they do what good writing always does: they give pleasure to the reader. They inspire both laughter and reflection. For another thing, they record the thoughts of a major writer in a completely unguarded way. Among major poets, only the late Pablo Neruda attempted such an examination of his life and his surroundings in his fine, Book of Questions. Stern records the world so directly that, at times, he seems to attempt something beyond the sweaty craft of writing. Some of Stern’s aphorisms are so privately allusive, they are obscure. However, in Stern’s hands even obscurity is interesting. Not God After All is a wonderful book to read in and out of. Every page holds some form of delight since Stern’s aphorisms, like his poems, are written to be read and re-read endlessly.