Montreal Review of Books
Reviewed by Bert Almon
Ricardo Sternberg’s poems offer pleasure, not embarrassment. His forms are elegant: he loves three_ and four_line stanza and even writes a sestina. He is not stiff or banal like some of the contemporary formalists: like the trapeze artist in one of his love poems, he makes the work appear effortless. He’s s a master of the love lyric. One of the best poems, “Mobius Strip,” uses the metaphor of that peculiar ring of paper with a twist to describe the union of lovers in bed. The Mobius strip appears to have two sides yet has only one, a conceit the Metaphysical poets would have loved. He respects tradition without losing his originality. One of his poems, “The Fish,” is a rewriting of an Elizabeth Bishop poem of the same name. Another, “Florida Reprieve,” is a new take on the singing muse in Wallace Steven’s great poem, “the Idea of Order at Key West.” “The Ant” Sternberg’s retelling of an Aesop fable, has a wonderful phrase redolent of Stevens to describe the improvident grasshopper: “the jongleur of our meadows.”
The extravangance (as in the root meaning, ” wandering about ” ) of his imagination is superb without straying into whimsy. He has a poem about an angel who joins the Moscow Circus, and he has written interesting poems about such unusual subjects as quarks or a millionaire who sneaks into heaven disguised as a camel. The Bible is one of his intertextual sources: he writes about the marital breakdown of Noah and his wife, the Tower of Babel, Jonah, and _ most interesting of all_ the birth of song out of Satan’s lament for the fall of Eve. Only once does he miscalculate, with “Thumb,” a poem which collets too much lore about that digit from history and science, generating a two_and_a_half page poem which lags quickly. The other poems have the rightness of external form inseperarable from internal meanings.
As with a Mobius strip, there is no disjunction between inner and outer: by some mystery of geometry a twist makes them into one. Sternberg’s imagination makes that maneouver.