“Sarah Stern is a poet to watch and relish.”


Review by Dana Robbins, Calyx, Vol 31: 2, Summer / Fall 2019


Review by Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week (August 27, 2019)

JWcollagepoetry“To Get At Things At A Slant”
New Volumes From Jewish Poets

A roots journey to Germany sparks Sarah Stern’s new book of poetry…

Sarah Stern stumbled upon what would become the title of her new book of poetry while visiting Germany for the first time in 2014, and traveling to Rexingen, the town where her mother was born. Her mother and her parents left in 1939, after Kristallnacht, when her grandfather was arrested and sent to Dachau for four weeks. Stern found the town to be as beautiful as her late mother had described it, like a fairy tale.

In the Jewish cemetery, she found the grave of her great-great-grandparents; the family had lived in Rexingen for 400 years. Now there are no Jews. A gentile couple who took it upon themselves to preserve the town’s Jewish history guided her around the Jewish museum they created, and showed her family photographs and two letters written by her grandfather Julius — a corporal who was awarded the Iron Cross and other military medals for his service in World War I — to the town’s mayor. Julius described the horror of war and said, as she quotes in a poem, “And yet, over and over again, /we have been lucky in the midst of misfortune.” The letters were in their original envelopes, with patterned liners, which are reproduced on the cover of her new book.

In her third book of poetry, “We Have Been Lucky in the Midst of Misfortune” (Kelsay Books), Stern dedicates one of five parts of the volume to her trip to Germany. In other poems, she writes about growing up — she was the youngest of seven children, with six older brothers — and about memory, among other themes. Her late mother has a profound presence in these poems. With empathy, Stern also writes about encounters in daily life, one with a UPS man who pays for her meter and won’t take her change, saying, “‘I got plenty in the truck.’/ Sometimes a sentence/ Makes you love a stranger.”

Her poems are like short stories, some more like photographs, capturing a moment in time, in detail, as it will never be again. Most are free verse, as she explains in an interview in Manhattan, “within them a pattern and rhythm that I try to stick with, that pushes the language for me.” Stern, who also teaches poetry, tries to strip language to its essence.

“What I love about poetry,” she says, “is that it allows me to get at things at a slant.” She says that her mother’s garden was always mixed up, never in rows, and that poetry allows her to write like that, in ways that one can’t in prose. A graduate of journalism school, she ways journalism and poetry are similar in the preciseness they require, and the value of listening well.

After journalism school, she worked at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) for six years as a staff writer on its newspaper, interviewing union members and taking photographs.

“The job made me appreciate my experience — I met so many people who were first-generation Americans, working with their hands, as my mother did.”

In the poem “On Audubon Avenue,” she writes, “When she was young/the Irish bus driver/ waited for her/ on Audubon Avenue, en route/to her Local 65 job. / She’d run, red hair and freckles, / letting go, turning into an American.”

Stern’s mother was a proud union member. Later on, while in her 50s, when Sarah went to Barnard, her mother took her GED and went on to graduate from Lehman College.

In “My Little Life,” Stern writes, “Mother would say as long as there is something on the table to eat/ Yes, that’s true, but/ After we have that, we get to look around at who is sitting with/ Let us praise them and the light too.”

As a poet, she’s proud and grateful to have a voice, and says, “Speaking as a woman, as a Jewish woman, having that opportunity and to be alive at this time — I can write. It wasn’t always that way. And it matters.”

Full review:

Review by Judith Swann, Compulsive Reader (March 4, 2019)

We Have Been Lucky in the Midst of Misfortune
by Sarah Stern
Kelsay Books
ISBN: 978-1-949229-40-0, Paperback, 117 pgs,
December 10, 2018

One way we address a great grief is to embrace the “before it” and the “after it,” taking care to only lightly palpate the wound itself. This is the technique Sarah Stern uses in the title sequence of her book We Have Been Lucky in the Midst of Misfortune, an exploration of what it means to be a German Jew before WWII or the descendant of German Jews. There are 11 poems in this sequence—some prose poems, some “found” bits, some free verse. Through an old family photo, we meet the dramatis personae, which includes the narrator’s grandfather and his nine siblings. This count excludes two sibs that died in infancy and one that ran off with a Gentile. The narrator, in Germany with present-day hosts, sits at table in Horb am Neckar outside the Black Forest watching the swans. She has, as we see from the next two poems, translations of letters her grandfather, Corporal Julius Pressburger, wrote to the mayor of what was then an independent community, Rexingen, now part of the municipality of Horb. Don’t let these details slip by you. The ways that time and war shape language and geography run parallel to the way that the human soul transmigrates; and they shape the identity of the beings that are geboren and gestorben (38) there.

Before the war there was a cafe in Horb,
Down the hill from Rexingen.
You could sit and talk there. (“Cafe Levi”, 52)

Like so many German Jews, Corporal Pressburger was decorated in World War I but arrested on the verge of World War II. Like my neighbor’s grandfather, he did a stint in Dachau back when it really was “just” a work camp. He immigrated to the USA after his release. His brother Isaak, we already know, “didn’t make it out.” (37) Yet there is healing—it is delayed, distant, and translated—but it is healing nonetheless:

Yes, we did, late night
the Christmas markets not far
Einstein Kaffee near. (“Making Love in Berlin”, 54)

Another notable sequence in this book is “The Little Room.” In these six poems, Stern’s narrator invites us into therapy with an analysand who, it is revealed early on, truly has some issues to address. In the first poem of the sequence, “Where the Stories Begin,” the patient introduces us to the analyst:

You wear thin ties, gray pants
and listen like no one has ever listened. (93)

And then she confesses:

It does not take long
for me to love you. (93)

In “The Clearing,” the patient identifies the analyst with Mister Rogers (“I wanted Mister Rogers to be my father”) (94), which is as disquieting in its own way as was her love at first sight. From love to daughterhood…but wait! By the next poem, “Album,” things get even more unheimlich:

Two inches from my face
That space between us softens.
You move back in your chair.
The session begins. (95)

This could be the famous B&W of Marie Bonaparte photographing Freud. In “The Stutter,” our patient waxes mystical over the connections between the analyst’s stutter and her own “new teeth pushing through the gum,” the words they share with one another. (96) There is of course, only one way for this to end, with the patient’s disillusionment. In “Around Town,” the patient catches sight of the analyst in “a cafe with another woman” (97) and the spell is broken. She is betrayed:

I get angry at the thought
that you aren’t always in
the little room thinking of me (97)

In “The Fight,” she ends it, she leaves “before the session is over,” going where “the cool air feels good” on her face. (98) But she has also abandoned the pressing issues she set out initially to address. This patient wants vengeance, tepid though it may be:

I hope you stay
in the little room
until my hour is over. (98)

Take that, Mr. Rogers!

Though I have focused on just two sequences, this collection is replete with haunting and thought-provoking poetry.


Review by Erika Dreifus, Brief Book Reviews (2019)

We Have Been Lucky in the Midst of Misfortune: Poems by Sarah Stern (Kelsay Books, 2018). Here’s some solid advice: Before you invest in submitting your manuscript to a press that charges a reading fee, be sure that you get to know the work of that press. (Yes, this may involve actually purchasing one of its books.) Since I’m considering submitting my own poetry manuscript to Kelsay Books’s Aldrich Press imprint, I went ahead and ordered this poetry collection. Whether I end up sending my work to Kelsay or not, I am so pleased that learning about Kelsay brought me to this book. It is lovely (the poetry is lovely, and the cover and other production elements are also beautifully done). So many of the poems here resonated with me, particularly the ones connected with the poet’s German-Jewish lineage, and those that seem, to me, embedded in experience of a psychoanalytic/psycho-therapeutic dyad. A keeper volume, for sure.



Review by Katrinka Moore, Mom Egg Review

In But Today Is Different Sarah Stern writes in the ancient tradition of erotic mysticism while grounding her poems in familiar American life. This poetry is womanly, drawn from the midst of life. The speaker tends to her dying mother, applies for jobs, shops for suits at a mall, imagines how she’ll feel when her children leave home, and has wild sexual fantasies on the subway. Oh — and she has conversations with a mystical voice, a spiritual guide of sorts.

The different elements are braided together into a fully-lived, fully alive book of poems. Of course, what makes life so precious is the reality of death, and Stern faces it directly here. She revisits her mother’s last days and muses “[a]nother season without daddy.” She makes me fall in love with her mother, who “didn’t believe in God but in tradition, the geology of things” and answered the 13-year-old daughter’s questions about sex by asking, “Do you ever touch yourself?”

Awash in filial love, missing her parents, Stern writes:

Where did they go?
I’m not the same.
Who are you?

I don’t know.
I know that I love the not knowing.

Not knowing is at the heart of both mysticism and desire, feelings that can’t be explained by the intellect. The art of longing is also in both. Not knowing and longing are uncomfortable and can be cast aside in hectic daily life, yet they are essential to living engaged with the world. In “Decorated Generals” the speaker says

I want to be free from want
like before the snow came
and covered me in something
other than fire and ice.

And the spirit voice responds:

Let want be.

Like Sappho (as I read her) Stern writes of eroticism as both real and metaphorical. Unfulfilled desire “makes you see things,” the spirit voice says, and “changes you, makes you remember that you’re more than flesh and bone.” But fulfilling desire leads to the spiritual, too, as in “Elephant Skin”:

like sex last evening
rolling up to my mouth
those concentric circles of coming

the rings that begin at the root
and work through me
as though I could count them

to know my age.
What is it about this life
that makes it more wondrous

than the day before even with the savagery?
She says, again, praise the light.

Throughout the book, Stern keeps her sense of humor in the face of big questions without answers. On a walk, she sees a garter snake, which sends her on a tradition-melding muse:

I keep hearing her on
my way back —

strange and melodious.
She tells me every season

has moments of grace
and that it is my job

to find them.
Ah, and how? I ask.

That’s when there is silence again.
She uses big words for a snake.


“The Overlooked List: Ten books from 2014 that didn’t get the attention they deserved”
Review by Sandee Brawarsky,  The Jewish Week

“But Today is Different” by Sarah Stern (Resource Publications) is a collection of 60 eloquent poems. The volume is dedicated to the memory of the poet’s mother, and many of the poems evoke  presence and memory, loss and death, elevating ordinary moments into holiness and beauty.



Review by Deborah Schoeneman, Jewish Book World

Love is ephemeral. To stop and appreciate each moment of our memories—the “now” moment—and the future of love in all its myriad forms describes Sarah Stern’s poetry. In “A Spring for Einstein,” for example, we read the personification of love, “All matter returns to energy/Faint light trolling through the universe/Open the window by your bed/Watch the curtains lift/That breeze was once you.” Yet amidst this beauty lies the juxtaposing, ever-looming presence of suffering and death that must be accepted as part of loving. In “From the Journal Entries of Sergeant Anthony Jones, Age 25,” Jones writes that he knows he will be killed due to inadequate equipment and no parts to fix the trucks while his grandmother stares at his picture with anger, thinking the right order is that she should have gone first, an age-old feeling that is no less potent with love no matter how often heard. A child’s questions in another poem focus on the possibility of an afterlife, quickly followed by the child’s total engagement in the wind and speed of a bike ride, a loving, thrilling experience in itself. Sarah Stern is a poet to watch and relish.


Poetics of Riverdale
Reviewed by Jake Marmer, The Forward

When we think of great New York poets — Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman and Laurie Anderson, among others — what they’ve immortalized and exalted have been the streets and energies of Manhattan or, on rare and less transcendent occasions, Brooklyn. The Bronx, when it did appear, has always been something of the old country — where immigrant parents and grandparents lived, a remote, provincial satellite. And certainly Riverdale, Bronx’s sleepy neighborhood with a large Jewish population, would appear to have nothing to offer to poetic imagination. Judith Baumel, featured on The Arty Semite last year, seem to have been the only exception.

And yet, Sarah Stern’s recent collection of poems, “Another Word for Love,” is profoundly grounded in Riverdale — in its subway stations and parks, buildings and streets. The first of the two poems featured today, “Morning Prayer,” takes place on the streets of the neighborhood, and features a curious juxtaposition of spiritual experiences, genders and visions. The second piece, “Reentry,” is an homage to exceptional character, evoked so vividly that he practically walks (or rather, waddles) off the lines of the poem.

Morning Prayer: Riverdale, July 2006

Saturday morning and the men
hurry to synagogue with their tallit bags,
I’m jogging past them

thinking about things the way you can
when you know your route,
a military maneuver,

played over in your mind’s eye again and again
until all you’re left with is the after-space,
your feet simply punctuation,

a line break
on the curve to nothing.
Pray for peace, that’s it.

Pray like the squirrel in the grass
with a crab apple in his mouth,
gooseberries barely visible in the thicket,

starlings splashing in pot holes,
the old woman who walks with a cane
to the market for the morning paper,

yellow blossoms turning into tomatoes,
green globes, new planets waiting,
waiting to be named.


Paul Cymerman, a local retired butcher, became the unofficial “Mayor of Henry Hudson Park” in 1989….

— City of New York Parks and Recreation Plaque, December 2000

Each morning Paul unlocks
the gates, swings the metal chain
over the top of the door and
opens the playground.

He makes sure the sand is clean,
turns the toy motorcycles
over before rain. On summer
days when the sun’s out,

you can see the numbers
up his arm frozen beneath
his skin like fish below ice,
almost alive. He still wears

a pin that reads “The Butcher.”
He says he’s got a good
connection with his Maker.
“Don’t jump on the park benches.

Don’t throw sand in the sprinkler,”
he tells the children
as he stands in his black shoes
and creates a periodic table of

his own elements. Toward evening
he walks with his wife beside him.
She holds on to his arm.
Eve, had she grown old in the garden.


Reviewed by Ellen Miller-Mack, Verse Wisconsin

Sarah Stern asks resonant questions, dropped like pebbles in a deep lake from a rock on which she balances with grace.  Picture concentric circles— these are the fluid poems inAnother Word for Love.

The opening poem, “A Spring for Einstein” floats a rather cosmic idea on a stream of images, arriving at “that breeze was once you” with remarkable clarity and a unique perspective.

Another switch of perspective yields the poet’s exploration of that irresistible urge to fly in verse, in “With Henry Hudson”: “I’m not cold, so light, effortless / then I wake and know // I’m no longer a child gliding // over telephone lines, / dogs on the hill,” soaring beyond dream-space.”

“Saw Mill River Bike Path”, an expertly paced poem, begins with a stark question: “My daughter asks when you die / do you stop feeling anything then carries the  reader back in time, to a very specific  experience many  of us have had—learning to ride a bike. As the wheels turn, Stern modestly yet deftly conjures the cycle of life.

Another poem which deals with mortality is “Riding the Bus from Manhattan”, crafting autumn’s waning light and “the Harlem River gulls” afloat through:

Yankee Stadium

The Auto Parts Store

The Providence Rug Company

Beato’s Professional Hair Braiding

St Matthew’s School

It’s a human world they glide through “like royalty.”  The poet’s guileless (and very human) question is answered, as they “suddenly rise up / in unison and head for shore.”

There is sweetness to Sarah Stern’s gentle probing of life, including her poems about war. “From the Journal Entries of Sergeant Anthony Jones, age 25”:

Grieve little and move on.

Sergeant Jones knew he wouldn’t

return.  Kelly found his diaries

after he had spent two weeks at home.

I shall be looking over you.

“Empty” is paradoxically filled with the unwieldy weight of sadness, beginning with the personal and domestic: “I’m empty like a spoon next to / a fork that’s beside a knife.” The knife as a symbol of violence begins to haunt, as the poem turns to a different daughter and mother as well as a husband killed in the war in Iraq.

Another Word for Love, Sarah Stern’s first chapbook, is filled with love for life and family, with a cultural Jewishness that I find warm and welcome, writing this on the first night of Chanukah. Its questions are fundamental and deep, woven into well-wrought poems.


Reviewed by Sandee Brawarsky, Jewish Woman Magazine

In her first book of poems, Another Word for Love (Finishing Line Press), Sarah Stern looks at the big themes of love, loss and death with a creative and lyrical approach. In her poems, she often notices the angle of light and the passage of time, and reminds readers, “We have one life in this broken world.”


Reviewed by Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week

Share Beautiful Words

‘Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious Psalm,/The mystic lights of emblem, and the Word,” Emma Lazarus wrote in “The Feast of Lights.”

Several new volumes of poetry deserve to be read out loud and also savored in silence. Highly recommended are Richard Zimler’s “Love’s Voice: 72 Kabbalistic Haiku” (Tarcher Books), in which the novelist expresses Jewish mystical teachings in the traditional Japanese form of haiku; Riverdale poet Sarah Stern’s “Another Word for Love” (Finishing Line Press), Jake Marmer’s “Jazz Talmud” (Sheep Meadow Press) and Isidore Century’s “Unintended Wanderings Through Torah” (Blue Thread Communications).