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But Today Is Different by Sarah Stern

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but today is differentReview by Katrinka Moore

– 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.



But Today Is Different
by Sarah Stern
Wipf and Stock Publishers 2014

Katrinka Moore’s latest book is Numa (Aqueduct Press, 2014), an epic poem about a shape-shifting creature. She is also the author of Thief (BlazeVOX, 2009) and This is Not a Story (Finishing Line Press, 2003), which won the New Women’s Voices Prize.


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