“January 19, 1969” by Gerard Sarnat

from Star 82 Review Issue 2.2: Summer 2014

Review by Howard Richard Debs


Gerard Sarnat is my kind of poet. First of all he “lives” way beyond the literary beltway, following in the footsteps of those from Chaucer, a clerk of the King’s Works to Robert Frost, a farmer-poet—poultry I believe was his staple, to name but two who plied their trade while penning their verse. Gerard Sarnat’s day job is that of a physician. He did not start sending his writing out into the world until age 64, perhaps feeling he had by then accumulated enough of life to have something really worth writing about, so in that he takes his cue from the likes of Charles Bukowski and Wallace Stevens among others who also found the muse farther up the road, and it is perhaps in part Sarnat’s extensive life experience that contributes to his unique perspective as a poet.

Freeways, that’s where this gem of a poem begins (“Hidden Gems” is actually the name given the section of the Star 82 Review where you’ll find this piece). It begins on the highways of life, and takes us along some byways that reflect the capricious turns life can take, and more importantly, shines a headlight on how we navigate these changes in direction. The poem is about a spousal relationship which might be defined by some as unconventional, undesirable, intolerable, but the teller of this tale, while recognizing this, is more concerned with the aspects of life together two as one, and in the telling the universality of the experience, in its foibles, its expectations, its ecstasies, and its outcomes is profoundly expressed.

John Barri in his 2006 article “American Poetry in the New Century” in the venerable Poetry magazine wrote “When poets come to pay as much attention to how they live as to what they write, that may mark one new beginning for poetry. . . . Poets should live broadly, then write boldly.” Sarnat seems to have followed that advice. His passion and caring about what goes on around him—he has for example set up and staffed clinics for the disenfranchised—infuses his literary endeavors, and this quality of a passion for compassion shines through in “January 19, 1969.”

Using a “date stamp” for a title likens the poem to a snapshot taken, ascribing this as a captured moment in time and reflection, Speaking of poems and photography calls to mind the essay of V. Penelope Pelizzon “Light Speaking” found again in Poetry (2013) in which she writes: “Poems offer the possibility of bringing past, present, and future together [this] . . . responds with particular intensity to the photograph’s paused instant.”

Sarnat uses enjambment, for example, like the shutter button on a camera, to create a montage of a meaningful long term relationship infused with all of living’s unexpected passages:

While he shops not for beds, I fill the tank with petrol, which doubles as

a life’s worth of Drano for matching
his/his sinks back home. No reason,

his side gets less clogged than mine, dayo, we’ll use the runoff to unclog (6-9)

Click, click—on to the next “image” shot in a staccato-like fashion, as the speaker in the poem turns to other thoughts, other places, other times, piecing them all together as reminders of a life together, well-spent, even if their life is considered arcane “Among Mickey Mouse-eared and cocky cactus” (20) types as mentioned in the poem. What an allusion this reference to people who want their life fulfillment to be Disneyfied (read: squeaky clean) or those with the prickly exterior presence of a cactus, righteous unapproachables, from whom one is best to steer clear!

The poet takes on the mantle of a spouse conveying the details of everyday experience as if one’s life depended on it, and emblematically it does, from the visceral concerns of:

mayo-chocked coronaries.
Chest pain celebrating our illegal

first date’s anniversary at the Movie Star Colony Motel (10-12)

to the surreal and conundrum of:

refusing to be human, mutating toward an Alice, I wonder

where’s the naivety I lost
at some anonymous roadhouse (16-18)

The poem’s speaker ruminates, giving us a word picture rendering the architecture of a precious relationship.

The poem begins pragmatically as mentioned, on the road per se “Freeways entering the emerald city” (1), tells of moving down the highway, a metaphor without a doubt, and ends poignantly pronouncing where and in a way how this special relationship is destined to end: “We came in from the desert, we” (23)—I will stop right there, I don’t want to spoil it, the ending that is. Read it, for its beginning, its ending, and all that lies between.

i.) John Barr served as the first president of the Poetry Foundation from 2004 to 2013.


Howard Richard Debs received a University of Colorado Poetry Prize at age 19. After spending the past 50 years in the field of communications with recognitions including a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Educational Press Association of America, he has recently resumed his literary pursuits, and his latest work appears or is forthcoming in The GermCalliopeBig River Poetry ReviewJewish Currents, Poetica MagazineMisfitmagazineEclectica MagazineStar 82 Review, Ardor Literary Magazine, China Grove, Belle Reve Literary Journal, and Verse-Virtual.  He can be found at his blog, Communicators and Communications.

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