Award-winning poet Ricardo Sternberg opens his latest collection, Bamboo Church, with an invitation to his family’s table. His great-aunt joins the reader in “Two Wings”—”She would drift into the kitchen / trailing fragments of a hymn that spoke of God”. We sit down to eat and are asked:
Did you fall asleep? Did you dream?
You awoke to the smart snap of sails:
the billowing of a tablecloth
This is a book concerned with the miniature, the small moment, the detail, the turn of phrase. And it is through this, our acceptable scrutiny as guests, that Sternberg creates the vivid fictions of his autobiography—our host always checking on us to see that we are keeping up. But we are in friendly hands. Pass the tomatoes.
If this were a book only about his family, it would be enough, but Sternberg raises a domestic quarrel with God as well. About three quarters through the collection, we find the smart poem “Plea Bargaining”:
Beginning with Lord,
ending with Amen
I wrote, you may recall,
a note last month
in which I asked
with appropriate humility
for a re-negotiation of contract
It is a comedic nod to one of Sternberg’s concerns throughout the book and also shows his perfect handling of the short line lengths he’s chosen as his medium—the theatrical aside muttered in “you may recall” or the perfect pause for the intake of breath (needed for the larger argument) enacted by the stanza break. We can hear beneath its careful carelessness the phrasing of William Carlos Williams. Note the achievement of the beginning stanzas of “The Ant,” a retelling of the fable, the grasshopper making his appearance only towards the end:
As a washerwoman
back from the river
balances on her head
the loaf of laundry,
so too does the ant
return to the hill
by a large crumb.
could devour the world
We hear the careful alliteration, balancing these small lines with added tension—”back” and “balances,” “loaf” and “laundry,” the morphing of “encumbered” into “crumb” followed by the oratorical force of “Such hunger / could devour the world” yet still crammed into the small space he’s allowed himself. Our host has his elbows on the table, but we don’t notice. We find the matronly figure throughout the book, even hidden in the phonetics of “The Ant.” She runs back and forth from the family kitchen, not part of the conversation but present in every fact of consequence.
Do the small lines ever limit Ricardo Sternberg? Only occasionally, and we quickly forgive him. He is at his best when he looks sideways at his subject, or through a Biblical lens, or through comedy—or, as in “The Baptist,” through all three. Once again, he draws our attention to family:
How my head came to be on that platter?
Mother and daughter had the hots for me.
Something about all those imprecations.
How well I did Old Testament fury
How well does Sternberg? I heartily recommend you sit at his table.