A Modest Master: A Review of Ricardo Sternberg’s SOME DANCE
(Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014. $16.95, 82 pages)
Review by Zachariah Wells
Ricardo Sternberg opens his fourth poetry collection with a poem titled, “An Invocation of Sorts,” a nod to the Homeric epic. As the title suggests, Sternberg’s appeal to the muse isn’t wholly in earnest. Before the poem’s end, he says: “as for theme, leave it to me / to come up with something / that while not highfalutin, // carries a whiff of the sublime.”
Writing recently in The National Post, Michael Lista asserted that “Ricardo Sternberg is one of the absolute best poets in this country,” a statement that Sternberg’s fastidious and yet winkingly modest poems would insist that we qualify. I would argue that Sternberg is a master of a certain sort of poem: a delightful poem of conversational semi-formal aplomb that is charmingly witty, gently self-deprecating, and disarmingly poignant.
In “Mule,” a poem from Bamboo Church, Sternberg’s previous collection, he lets us know that he is not aiming at grandeur: “You were forewarned / and have no right // to ask this mule / to be what it is not. / This is no poem for you.” Sternberg has a sneaky way of smuggling covert cargo into his verse. A word that often recurs in Sternberg poems is “meandering;” and meander is what these poems do, beautifully. It is telling that the two best pieces in Some Dance, “No Love Lost” and “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis,” are about writer’s block and procrastination. Sternberg has not been prolific—his books have appeared in 1990, 1996, 2003 and 2014. But the poems themselves are reminders that productivity, that totem god of late capitalism, is overrated, and that idleness can be the arena of art.
If Some Dance has a muse, it is not Calliope, the muse of epic, but Mnemosyne, the personification of memory and mother of all muses. Rosemary Sullivan has called Sternberg “a poet of memory,” and this has never been truer than in his latest book. Personal recall is a stock prop of lyric verse. But Sternberg does more to complicate recall than most poets.
The first fourteen poems comprise a faux-epic sequence whose protagonist, in moments of reflection, “scrambl[es] events from his life / with fiction and the TV soaps.” Throughout the collection, we encounter various failures and inventions of memory, and in “Manual,” the penultimate poem and another ars poetica, “the word engine starts / again at the very start: / to stutter its way towards truth / or lies and be, at the end, / unable to tell them apart.”
If this kind of stuttering is not the stuff of Great Poetry, it is, in the hands of an astute craftsman like Sternberg, the matter of very good minor poetry, which is rarer than it ought to be. If you let Some Dance spin you across its polished parquetry, you won’t be sorry.
Zachariah Wells (www.zachariahwells.com) is a contributing editor for Canadian Notes & Queries. His most recent book is Career Limiting Moves: Interviews, Rejoinders, Essays, Reviews.
This review was published in issue 11:2 “Speed.” To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum‘s website here: