An Act of Prestidigitation: Ricardo Sternberg’s Some Dance

Music has always been closely associated with poetry, and despite the move away from meter in the twentieth-century, it continues to inform those with a respect for the origins of the art. Whether it’s T.S. Eliot celebrating small moments where humankind is “music / while the music lasts,” or Philip Larkin tempering his ear writing as a jazz critic for the London Daily Telegraph, music is one of poetry’s first principles.

Brazilian-born professor Ricardo Sternberg traffics in music too, though the protagonist in the title poem of Some Dance has to be “a little sauced” to hear it. Much of Sternberg’s universe is slightly off-kilter, skewed just enough to be assembled tongue-in-cheek. In “Meal” he transforms the idiom of eating crow into a feast relished by his protagonist when he writes:

Asked to eat crow
he did so and with such vengeance
he plucked the bird still warm
and from the collected feathers
made her a little pillow of nightmares.

This stanza embodies the circuitous narratives that dominate Some Dance—a book more Spanish soap opera than a typical example of Canadian literature™. And indeed, daytime dramas are referenced directly in “The Soaps,” a poem that’s as seductive as the characters Sternberg creates with “rhetorical sleight-of hand, / dexterous verbiage, [and] the gift of gab.” Even more magnetizing is Doctor Ramon, a sleazebag physician who bolsters several of Sternberg’s narratives, cashing in on unsuspecting dupes as he moves from con to con.

But it’s music that produces the most immediate pleasures in Some Dance—a delicacy of cadence that’s often taken for granted in contemporary literature. Sternberg writes with an ease that belies his technical sensibility, holding his poems together with internal rhyme, lively syntax, and a confidence bred from years of rehearsing his steps. When he summons the muse in “An Invocation of Sorts,” he requests that she “silver my drab tongue,” before stopping short:

But as for theme: leave it to me
to come up with something
that while not highfalutin,

carries a whiff of the sublime.
Finally, don’t just hang around
after giving me my dose. Look:

I’m really, really grateful. Now adios.

All the hallmarks of Sternberg’s best verse are here: the playful tenor, the electric prosody, the self-assurance. Who else would have the guts to tell off the muse to open their finest book?

If one were to nitpick, Some Dance’s weakness is its homogeneity. It waltzes along at a one pace, content to entertain without deviating from its strengths. But when a book’s strengths are as profuse as those in Some Dance, complaint is to miss the transformative power of the author’s prestidigitation. As Sternberg expounds on writers’ block and the pleasure of unlocking language in “The Word”:

No word he knows
can name this funk
though he swears

when found such word
(to name is to tame)
will prove a balm

that quiets the heart
allows it to sleep.

Jim Johnstone‘s most recent book is Dog Ear (Vehicule Press, 2014). He is also the editor of The Essential Earle Birney, forthcoming from Porcupine’s Quill.


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