Monday, March 27, 2006

Ricardo Sternberg was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1948 and moved to the United States with his family when he was fifteen. He received a B.A. in English literature from the University of California, Riverside and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UCLA. Between 1975 and 1978, he was a Junior Fellow with the Society of Fellows at Harvard University.
His poetry has been published in magazines such as The Paris Review, The Nation, Poetry (Chicago), Descant, American Poetry Review, The Virginia Quarterly and Ploughshares. Vehicule Press (Montreal) published The Invention of Honey (1990, republished 1996), Map of Dreams (1996) and McGill-Queen's University Press published Bamboo Church (2003, republished 2006). Cyclops Press released a CD of his readings, Blindsight, in 1998.

Email: sternberg at

The Invention of Honey

“A collection of lucid, intelligent, and wryly witty poems about spiders and bees, angels and alchemists, love and sex.” The Globe and Mail

“Charm in the deeper, original sense of talismans and magic, of sinuous, enchanting syntax and strange, brilliant images; poems infused with feeling for what Theodore Roethke called ‘all things innocent, hapless, forsaken.” The Canadian Forum

Review of The Invention of Honey in Books in Canada

Map of Dreams

“From ancient tales through postmodern narratives, the quest for the Wandering Islands, a version of paradise, has been a mainstay of the western literary imagination. Map of Dreams, a scintillating log of one such voyage, features such wonders as an animate figurehead, an island that etherizes, and a pilot who navigates by smell. Shot through with lists of Babylonian secrets and catalogues of books in hermetic libraries, this sequence is nonetheless as approachable as the Odyssey and the Canterbury Tales, to which the poet’s gleaming narrative and vivid sketches are gracefully indebted.” – Stephen Yenser

“Serene, yet balanced always on the hinge where surprise and conviction are simultaneous – with this book Sternberg reminds us that there are winds that blow from the world of dream and, whorled in the ear of a superb poet, freshen the real.” – Don McKay

Review of Map of Dreams in Books in Canada

Review of Map of Dreams in Treeline

Bamboo Church

“Ricardo Sternberg sets in motion a most remarkable array of agents: birds, brujos, quarks, carrots, and Cyril of Thessalonika... among them lovers who trapeze through a poetry of formal concentration and assuredness. Bamboo Church is a wonderful collection; full of play, and energy, and delight, it draws together under one roof satire that has tang, argument that is sinuous and subversive, and stories both open and true.” Robert Finley

“So adamant is Sternberg about maintaining the truth of comparison and the falsehood of frivolous metaphor that he brutalizes universal cliches with a profound humor: a camel is cast out of heaven for failing the needle test, an angel joins the circus, an ant becomes a farmer then a tractor--not as a comparison but as a fact. What a delight it is to watch these compassionate comedies deconstruct a figure of speech into speech itself, to know that magic still lives beyond the realm of lies.” Greg Keeler

Review of Bamboo Church in Books in Canada

Review of Bamboo Church in Arts Editor

Review of Bamboo Church in Montreal Review of Books

AIGA Prize for the cover design of Bamboo Church

To Buy

The Invention of Honey

Map of Dreams

Bamboo Church


from Bamboo Church:

Two Wings

She would drift into the kitchen
trailing fragments of a hymn that spoke of God,
a river, the pair of golden wings
that would be hers on Judgement Day
and were you to look at her then
you might well decide your best bet
for a meal would be to eat out:

she was blind and appeared a little lost
in her tile and linoleum kingdom.
But she vaguely addressed the garlic,
the onion, the tomato and between her hands
rubbed a sprig of rosemary over olive oil.
A fragrance then arose and you decided
you had best sit down. And you did.

Did you fall asleep? Did you dream?
You awoke to the smart snap of sails:
the billowing of a tablecloth.
She returned and a generous bowl
was placed in front of you.
Then she crossed her arms and waited:
her prayer done, your eating was its Amen.

* * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * *


Watch it gain substance
as the sun
burns brain fog away.

Here is the brown field,
here under the shade
of the olive tree, the mule.

More than gravity, gravitas
holds this mule earthbound.
Ages ago it said goodbye

to illusions. Today it dreams
of stones, sunshine, hay.
A no-nonsense clopper

with slow, socratic eyes
too wise for foolishness
too gentle for spurs,

it insists this easy gait
and a stubborn patience
will take us far.

We have barely begun
and, reader, already
you fidget in the saddle.

But who is to blame?
You were forewarned
and have no right

to ask this mule
to be what it is not.
This is no poem for you.

Close the book, then,
roll over and go to sleep.
Fashion out of dreams

why not a bicycle
then peddle quickly
all the way to hell.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Paulito's Birds

In dozens of plain cages
each with its mirror and bell
my great uncle raised birds
but the steepled bamboo church
with a nest in its hollow pulpit
he, the fierce atheist,
kept for the mating pair.

At his whim, admonished
not to speak, I followed,
acolyte with a burlap bag
from which he doled out
ceremonious, almost sacramental,
feed to the fluttering tribe.

Half his thumb was gone:
a loss he would ascribe
--in a sequence meant to mirror
my own small failings--
first, to sucking his thumb,
next, to teasing the parrot
and later, to being careless
around the carpentry tools.

Perhaps it was his demeanour
--dry stick of a man-- or the way
the door to the birds was locked
and he alone held the key;

perhaps it was that stump of a thumb
grudgingly displayed when we sat
at the table and the stubborn
afternoon refused to move,

that brings him back today
as wizard, magus, bruxo,
who, against ransom not received,
holds locked in this spell
of feathers and birdseed,
the children of his kingdom.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Consider the quark: its existence
is posited by scientists entranced
by a nothing which is there:
a particle that does not share
the known properties of materiality;
there but not there: a ghost entity.

Cyril of Thessalonika argued this case:
God withdrew and thus freed space
for the expanding univese. Absence
was his gift which makes his presence
this oxymoron worthy of contemplation:
the Zero at the core of all creation.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Plateia Kyriakou

Blessings upon the crone
who every afternoon
feeds the cats of Molivos
for they are many
and they are all hungry.

Bowlegged and in black,
whiskers on her own face,
with a slow, laboured gait
she crosses the square
and where she sits, they congregate.

A spoonful for each cat.
(Is this food or sacrament?)
And once she's done she bangs
the empty tins like cymbals
and the cats are gone.

Levering herself against a knee
she struggles to stand up
then soothing a rheumatic hip,
she keeps to the leafy shade,
when it's her turn to leave the square.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Quarter to four on a Sunday
as the snow began to fall,
she entered the room and whispered
I wish for once and for all,

you'd tell me how much you love me
and how long that love will last
for doubt has crept into my heart
and passion is fading fast.

My love is a little machine
that's always set to GO
it runs off a battery of kisses
but the battery is getting low.

My love is a little machine
but it's running cold today.
Join me in bed and let me
stroke all your doubts away.

Oh not so fast my darling.
I'm not easily assuaged;
when I saw your wandering eye
it drove me to such rage

that I chewed seven boxes of pencils
and painted my toe-nails black
then mixed a toxic cocktail
and prepared to bivouac

outside the gates of Melancholy
in the country of Despair
in the house whose name is Grief
and end my suffering there.

If my wandering eye offends
then I'll pluck it out in haste
but I swear to you my darling
your suspicions are misplaced.

A steadier heart has no man
who ever loved or wrote
and if I seem distracted
and at times appear remote

it's the law of love and business
it's as Adam Smith commands:
I've restricted the supply
in the face of low demand.

From the sequence: Map of Dreams

Vera quae visa;
Quae non, veriora

(True, the seen;
the unseen, truer still).

-* *-
The barn was warm, moist
and dark enough so that,
in from the bright outside,
Éamon at first saw nothing
but took in the raw odour
of straw, urine, manure
and felt the presence of cattle.

And then they moved.

Huge and magnificent,
they moved their milk-white bulk
like slow and pregnant moons
through the small night of the barn.

They turned toward the door
where he stood transfixed.
They held him steady
in the gaze of pinkrimmed eyes
until he felt himself slip
under their humid spell.

Only when he bolted from the barn,
heart pounding, his breath
hooked to the back of his throat,
did the boy, stunned by sunlight
in a field as broad as the sea,
come back to himself.

-* *-

She was carved in Hamburg
and given there the bright
blue eyes, the golden hair
and what the cook calls
when prey to mid-night funk,
her equivocal Teutonic grace,
for, oblivious to all entreaties,
she remains the steadfast one,
one eye fixed on the horizon.

Half her face is charcoal,
burned when lightning struck
in a storm off the Canaries;
others say no, not an accident:
torched on purpose by a misfit
who tried to woo her from the quay
while the ship docked at Calais.

The same holds for the tear.
They say it is but paint
carelessly dripped in Hamburg;
others swear that streak
appeared years later and at sea:
grief for Pedro whom, in fear
of the plague, we threw overboard.

Our glory is her hair
that frames her face in tight
gold curls then moves
to the intricacies of braids
only to be set loose at last
and flow back towards the ship
as if grandly swept by wind or wave.

-* *-

A pig iron disposition
annealed to a silver soul,
the boatswain kept to himself
except when a full moon
sat on his shoulder
and His Royal Gruffness
became suddenly blessed
by the gift of palaver.

Then it was the mermaids
adrift in our moonlit wake,
begged to be brought aboard
there to sit, shivering,
arms around each other,
asking of the sailor
that he tell once more
the tale of Fergus
whom they had drowned.

And once he was done,
that he tell it again,
the grief in his growl
soaking each word,
until daybreak neared
and, singly, they slipped
overboard, to mingle their tears
in the salt of the sea.

-* *-

From the lantern light
swinging at the stern,

bringing out the gold
glint of her braided hair

to the phosphorescence
we leave behind:

beholden to vagaries
of tide and wind,

by drift of chance
the ship is tracing

a new map and that map
the contours of this dream.

-* *-

Land forever postponed,
island yet to be found

below the dip of the horizon
where he aims to strike

the magnetic heart,
the lit centre of his life.

Or perhaps not. Not
a pinpoint on a map

but the map itself.
More than the map:

the drawing of it,
this sailing forth:

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
From The Invention of Honey

The Invention of Honey

f rom the start:
next to nothing
is what we know
about the bee.

Some have argued
that the sun cried,
the tears fell,
they took wings,
took heart and went to work.

Others have called this
poetry --
dismissing it
as hatched by men
with their heads
in the moon:
the bee is an ant
promoted for good behaviour,
given wings, a brighter suit
and the key to honey.

Very well.
The debate continues
and I do not know.

The bee is to me
as I must seem to her
a complete mystery.

small engines running on honey

striped angels who fell for sweetness

stars shooting into the corolla of a petalled sun

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A Small Spider

Only a spider, a small
missionary of sadness
I swallowed somehow
when I was distracted.

Laughter broke easily
her thin restraints
the delicate geometry
of the nets

but, patient architect,
she drew more lines,
reinforced the structure
until laughter ceased.

Only a small spider
who came in one day
of rain or of sunshine
one day like any other.

Tongue-tied, moans
were all I mustered:
lugubrious songs,
crippled lullabies.

Only a small sadness
on eight legs,
an implacable seamstress
with black thread

working behind my eyes,
but day by day
the day becomes
more like night.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Francis's Barn

Laudie Waples, a neighbour, owns the barn
but with husband dead and the livestock gone
her farm is up for sale;
the barn is his for use in winter.

The whole of winter he keeps the herd inside;
each held in place by a metal yoke.

Disturbed by our voices, barn swallows fly
zig-zags about the nave. Nave?
Shafts of light on plaster walls,
rows of stalls like narrow, private pews.

Francis tells us of lightning --
how, when it strikes the barn,
the current moves through the yokes
dropping the heard, stunned, to their knees;
and once, when he himself was struck,
how the bucket flew from his hands
and a column of milk rose in the air.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


I have wrestled a buffalo
into this poem
the least I could do
for an endangered species.

I have given him a tree
for shade, a stream
to slake his thirst.

A hulk of night, stranded
on my gold-green pasture
he shakes stars from his fur,
paws thunder into the ground.

The reader is to blame
who brings red into the poem.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


When I gave her smiles
she gave me a wooden bell.
I have never known such sorrow.

When I gave her some tears
she gave me a small drum.
Now the neighbours know my joy.

When I gave her silence,
the green bird she gave me
flew down my throat.

It is with his voice
and none other
that now I sing in sleep.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ana Louca

Antic prone and crazy
breast-feeding her dolls
through the streets
or on Sundays marooned
by herself in a pew,
she offered her litany
of curses and profanities
to no one in particular.

Thursdays she would come
demanding that which habit
had made hers by right:
the warmed leftovers
she wolfed down, standing
against the green backdoor.
Finished, she rattled thanks
from the gates and was gone.

A packing crate her bedroom,
she slept by the docks.
Amid rags and broken dolls,
asleep and for once, quiet,
a grizzled girl
lulled by the ocean's rhythm
as if cradled in its blue arm.

All contents (c)19XX-2006 Ricardo Sternberg All rights reserved.