Lavender Ink Press ($14.95)
by Cynthia Hogue
Known for his acute criticism as well as exploratory poetry, Hank Lazer is a poet who might be described as a stylistic risk-taker as well as forager in the treasure house of words. But how does an avant-garde poet, by definition one who pushes the genre to extremes, take poetic risks and experiment? Lazer has answered this question in his latest collection, Days, a series of ten-line poems written almost daily over the course of a year, in which he forays into the territory of the lyric. He writes in his brief afterword that Days is "an homage to workers in the short line," allowing a "return to musicality and lyricism that felt very joyous -a way away from some of the implicit do's and don't's of avant garde praxis; a means back into modes of beauty." Such an approach has produced an often genuinely beautiful and linguistically fascinating poetry.
Lyric, as a generically denotative term, is famously hard to define. What Lazer seems to mean by lyricism is not that the poems are conventionally lyrical (as in, for example, John Stuart Mills's notion of a solitary voice overheard in a garden), but rather that they have a timely immediacy (in Sharon Cameron's sense of "lyric time"). Lazer works closely with the music of words, but not with representational imagery; with the signifying swerves of short lines, but not with a particular lineality of thinking. In a recent essay on the poetry of Rae Armantrout, in fact, Lazer has theorized what he terms a "poetics of the swerve," that capacity of the poem to open (or swerve) to the sudden association-sometimes a visual, sometimes an aural or verbal link. As the following passage suggests, Lazer himself is exploring that poetics:
slow to slogan
The power of these lines lies in the way a word that is meaningfully unrelated or even contrastive to another word can cause us to think of that other word through aural association. Such swerves allow Lazer deftly to play with the multiple meanings-"radiating infinite spokes"-that the coincidence of short lines and forced line breaks creates (for example, "veracity amen"; emphasis added).
Given that Days is a "daybook," the collection sustains a sense of being provisional, the "ecstatic witness" to a life in progress and in process. Some words are crossed out, others written in. There are handwritten dates for every poem and sometimes handwritten notes in the margins. The mind tracking its musings in these poems thinks about daily events through a language that leaps up and back and sideways rather than proceeds forward in an orderly fashion. Like all poetry, there is in these poems an intensified attention to language-for Lazer, a Poundian "dance of the intellect // paideuma of moving word icon"-that is interrupted by the very sense of lyric immediacy being contemplated. The poems quite literally "scatter" verbal effects, both enacting and interfering with, as one poem puts it,
a metaphysic of
this the still
How exactly do they do this?
Take the middle line in the passage I just quoted as an example. This the still: the deictic points but does not actually refer to anything concrete. As an abstract noun, "the still" might be usefully associated with the captured-in-time, iconic quality of ekphrasis in painting. If we read the words in an enjambed sequence of three lines, however, "still" becomes an adverb or adjective rather than a noun: the still lyrical interference; or still, lyrical interference. But which word does "still" modify, "lyrical" or "interference"? Lazer exploits these meaningful shifts without determining them technically (as the addition of a comma and/or dash or a different line break would do).
This aspect of his work allows him to open the poems to more than the play of signification, as the following passage suggests:
. . . & means
ment heart in
sists its history is now
& thus not history proper
Meaning unfolds into emotion's intensity ("heart in / sists its history is now") and then flits away, into another discursive tone ("& thus not history proper") as we read the lines as enjambed, rather than as discrete units.
Like the jazz improvisations that have in part inspired them, the form of these poems is the same (all the poems are ten lines), but the variations are endless. When taken together, the series comprises an epistemology of the quotidian that reveals it as rich with the large and the small. Lazer calls such a technique of inquiry, punningly, "hip gnosis" ("gnosis" in the sense of knowing). Wit like this delights and surprises throughout the volume.
Although the lyricism of this volume is surely the barest of bones, "stone soup" version, that spareness is oddly compelling. Lazer's sceneless poetry is as abstract and aware of the materiality of language as Dickinson, Stein, or Creeley (all of whom Lazer lists, among others, in his homage in the afterword). I take its honed pleasures, then, in the spirit of their poetics. I appreciate not only the play of, but also the politics that Lazer is able to uncover in the word-its malleable intonations and connotations, the music and meaning arising unexpectedly from aural echoes and associations, as in this brief sketch of the "adamic // american":
beginning over &
measure make audible
of mall and auction
block and so on
How many white poets, North or South, would allow so tangential an association as the assonance of "mall" and "auction" to move into significant historical consciousness?
Thus, for all the play of these poems, what draws me the most to Days is the near-spiritual urgency and ethical integrity of Lazer's poetic inquiry. They run like seams through the book, disrupting any stray "breathy epiphanies" (as Lazer wickedly and hilariously describes an "insipid" poetry reading). Like a tightrope walker, Lazer manages with aplomb to balance on the line between two aesthetics (in shorthand, Language and lyric), joyously con/fusing them, and refusing to decide whether "i'm as // far away from the // sacred as i've // ever been or it's // popping up here all // the time."