3 of 10. By Hank Lazer. Tucson: Chax Press, 1997. $14.00.
Early Days of the Lang Dynasty. By Hank Lazer. Buffalo: Meow Press, 1996.
Doublespace: Poems 1971-1989. By Hank Lazer. New York: Segue, 1992. $12.00
Virginia Quarterly Review, (Spring 1998). 381-90.
Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff
published in Virginia Quarterly Review, (Spring 1998). 381-90.
In 1992 Hank Lazer published a strange book of poems called Doublespace: Poems 1971-1989. Strange, in that the book was neatly, some would say, schizophrenically, divided into two seemingly contradictory halves. David Ignatow, an empathetic if slightly bewildered witness to Lazer’s bifurcations, described the division this way:
Doublespace is a noble attempt to bridge the chasm between Language poetry and the traditional anecdotal and meditative poetry of the “free form” mode. Free form poetry communicates in disciplined, conversational speech, one of its important principles. Language poetry defies this principle and goes about its work in lines that on their surface are a total mystery to the reader of free form. Lazer stands between the two antagonists like a Hercules carrying both on his shoulders adjacent to one another. . . . is he trying to say that each has its place in the armory of the modern?
Here is a sample poem from Book 1 of Doublespace:
As the spindrift
and ring of fog
blow out from the coast
my father and I
sit in the sand
of a small cove,
he breaking driftwood,
building a miniature
writing in the sand:
LA 300 –
while I read
on the fog, stone,
hawks, and ocean.
My father stumbled twice
climbing down to the beach,
and because I am his son
I feel guilty
for his twisted ankles
and heavy breath.
He lies down and listens
to the Jeffers poems
and I wonder what he thinks.
Is this place sanctified
for him too
through the poems
or is it something else
that keeps stirring
` his hands?
Today I felt
the death of a moth,
its powder in my hand,
and I wanted to take
my father’s hand but would not
as we walked back up to the road. (pp. 81-82)
“Point Sur” (originally published, incidentally, in Virginia Quarterly Review) is a late Romantic lyric in what Charles Altieri has called the “scenic mode”: its terse, low-key, open free-verse tercets track the movement whereby its speaker, spending a quiet day with his father at Point Sur (mythologized by Robinson Jeffers), tries to come to terms with his father’s mortality. The poem nicely conveys the lack of communication between the father, who focuses on the distance (300 miles) between Point Sur and LA, and the son, absorbed in the Jeffers’ ambiance of “fog, stone, / hawks, and ocean.” The son knows that his father is ill and possibly suffering, but, not wanting to embarrass him, keeps his distance. Filial love, the poem implies, produces more pain than pleasure.
Here, by way of contrast, is the opening of “Compositions 22,” from Book 2:
long rifLe am I my brother’s weeper when I have
no brother I said stay you’ll be no bother
cutlets for cufflinks no one says touring the links
why does everyone want to find the missing link couplets
obstinacy what designs the reception’s great up here
a dishevelled web of thought in honor of your opening
hard to stop thinking about two my current passion
is for profound skepticism is not it either (p. 170)
Whereas “Point Sur” was perfectly straightforward syntactically, “Compositions” is characterized by its disjunction.” There is no specific location for the speaker; indeed, the “I” of “am I my brother’s weeper” disappears after line 2. The piece depends heavily on pun and verbal play: “my brother’s weeper,” “cutlets for cufflinks,” “cutlets” / “couplets”, the play on “cufflinks” / “touring the links,” “missing link.” Referents are purposely obscure: whose is the “long rifle” in line 1? to whom does the poet say “stay you’ll be no bother”? where is the “up here” where “the reception’s great”? “Two” of what or whom is it “hard to stop thinking about”? And what is “my current passion” for?
Lazer’s aim, evidently, is to let the reader witness “a dishevelled web of thought” on a contradictory set of topics, to let sound rather than syntax determine what comes next. Between the writing of “Point Sur” and “Compositions,” Lazer seems to have undergone a kind of conversion experience. It happened at the historic What is a Poet? symposium he organized at the University of Alabama in 1984, and which I was privileged to attend. Lazer had invited the poets Louis Simpson, David Ignatow, Denise Levertov, Gerald Stern, and John Ashbery along with the critics Helen Vendler, Charles Altieri, Kenneth Burke, Gregory Jay, and myself to participate in a symposium on the place of poetry in contemporary culture. When John Ashbery was unable to come, Lazer invited, on my suggestion, Charles Bernstein, who, as it turned out, set off the most vociferous debate on poetry I have ever witnessed at a public forum. Simpson, Levertov, Stern, and Vendler, as well as the then resident poets in Tuscaloosa, attacked Bernstein’s work at every available opportunity; indeed Levertov told him in so many words that his poetry was a failure because it didn’t “move” anyone, a remark which led me to ask her how one would verify the state of being moved.
Those interested in the debate should consult the printed version of the proceedings (University of Alabama Press, 1987). Lazer himself, in any case, was an enthusiastic convert to the new experimental poetry represented by Bernstein’s work. Brought up on the confessional and “deep image” poetry of the sixties and seventies, he found in Language poetry an entirely new, exciting note. And he has been, ever since, a lively and engaging proponent of that poetry: witness his recent Opposing Poetries from Northwestern University Press. At the same time, Lazer has always wanted to bridge the gap between the two poetries: the more traditional lyric mode in which he came of age and the experimental “opposing” poetries generally associated with the Language movement.
My own sense is that in Doublespace, the “bridging” experiment doesn’t quite come off. If language is, for the poet of “Point Sur,” a transparent vehicle for the conveyance of ideas and feelings, why the syntactic dislocations and semantic displacements of “Compositions 22”? Can one, in other words, will to become a Bernsteinian poet? And, if so, at one point does one’s own particular sensibility and ethos separate itself from the chosen paradigm?
3 of 10 may be said to mark that point: Lazer has now assimilated the poetics of Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian and Susan Howe –all poets whom he has written about incisively in Opposing Poetries– and adapted Language poetics to his own purposes. 3 of 10 , beautifully designed for Chax Press by Charles Alexander in Adobe Caslon typeface and a square-page format, is much less programmatic than Doublespace and marks a significant advance beyond it. Indeed, its opening sequence, “H’s Journal,” is an eloquent demonstration of “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The tradition, in this case, is the “New Sentence,” as defined by Ron Silliman and used, in varying ways by Silliman, Hejinian, Bob Perelman, and others.
For Silliman, the “new sentence” is to prose poetry what the line is to verse. Just as lines are organized into stanzas, so sentences are organized into paragraphs, but the “new sentence” retains retains its integrity as an independent unit. The paragraph, in this new prose, is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument. Sentence length, then, is a unit of measure and “Syllogistic movement is: (a) limited; (b) controlled” (see The New Sentence [New York: Roof Books, 1987], p. 91). In practice, this conception of the sentence gives us the long prose units in Hejinian’s My Life or Silliman’s own Tjanting, texts in which a given sentence doesn’t “follow” the preceding one, at least not in a logical or sequential way, so that the reader has to note the recurrent features and hidden connections (imagistic, tonal, phonemic) between sentences, which, separate as they are, do not, in fact, function “in free-standing isolation.”
Lazer’s “H’s Journal,” is dedicated to Ron Silliman “who sent us / sentencing,” and the note at the back of the book explains that the journal is based on source material from Thoreau’s Journal as well as Walden, from writings about Thoreau, including Stanley Cavell’s Senses of Walden, and from a number of other H’s like Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, and Herman Melville, “as well as writings by a few irresistible non-H’s, especially Emily Dickinson. “H’s Journal” is divided into ten sections, each containing forty numbered sentences; there are thus 400 sentences in all, written, according to the headings between May 25, 1990 and December 8, 1991. In Part 1, twenty-three of the forty sentence units are marked as citations by quotation marks; in Part 10, only one, and that an informal exchange with a friend, probably Lyn Hejinian. Parts 2-9 fall somewhere in between but it is clear that the sequence moves from dependency to independence: by the end, the poet has become much less of a ventriloquist. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the very first sentence of Part I declares: “In a show of independence for which no crowing is called for, I went home to spend my fortieth birthday with my parents and my sister, for I have settled deliberately at some distance, knowing that to go home bestirs the confused marrow of one’s imagined autonomy.” But even “autonomy” is hard to define in this sequence for many of the sentences that don’t have quotation marks are in fact quotations and vice-versa.
Unlike Silliman’s “new sentence,” in any case, the Lazer sentence is not organized into paragraphs; indeed, his are closer to aphorisms and diary entries set down in a commonplace book. But unlike the typical commonplace book, “H’s Journal” gets its momentum from its crossings: its movements in and out of a nineteenth-century New England sensibility that is often indistinguishable from the poet’s own. Thus, although I read “H’s Journal,” with Volume 1 of Thoreau’s Journal at my side, I found it almost impossible to distinguish between Thoreau’s own statements (or Melville’s or even Dickinson’s), statements about him by various critics, and Lazer’s own observations. “Of course,” as we read in #44, “a journal tells a story, but the story being tracked is indiscernible, involves blurrings, has plenty of string and an equal amount of uncertainty about what are to be its beads.”
Along the way, much personal material relating to the poet’s own life in Tuscaloosa with his wife and young son Alan comes to the fore. Consider the following sequence from Part #3:
109 Is it system per se, and its visibility ahead of time, that converts idle and attentive activity into work; and is the mystification of not-knowing anything other than the guarantee of an invisible harness?
110 RETURN UNBOUND JOURNALS HERE
111 To read in many ( ) at once.
112 It is difficult to remember when a dream, an ideal, a way of living presented itself as purely inviting (and I, or something that goes by such a name, assented to this one).
113 “In his youth his temperament was fiery and so to correct this he adopted measures.”
114 He sits, comforted to think nothing needs doing right now.
115 Next door in curlers seventy-five year old Maree totters about and inspects where city workers removed underbrush from the far end of her yard, tells me she feels sicker than ever and in an hour or so she’s to throw a party for a friend’s eighty-fifth birthday, says she just prays to the good lord that she doesn’t fall out; soon, the street fills with large white parked cars.
116 Time cannot be thought can be thought about, or thought in, while thinking gives some compass to it, and even a particular pace and spin.
117 I am writhing ajournal; surely it could be verse.
118 Sings Alan after supper: “row row row your goat gently down the street merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream.”
119 “What happens instead is that men mythologize their forces, as they always have, project them onto demigods, and then serve projections.”
120 I write with no anxious grasping after: sooner or later, what I am doing will come to me.
Here the Thoreau aphorism with its wonderful metaphor of cultural constraint as “invisible harness,” paves the way for a complex meditation on contemporary constraints, the rules of everyday life like “RETURN UNBOUND JOURNALS HERE.” The seemingly unconnected sentences, some of them found texts like #119, some ordinary observations like #114 (“He sits, comforted to think nothing needs doing right now”), have in common a concern for somehow bringing the ideal and real into sync. Just as the subject of #113 (Thoreau? Melville?) adopts “measures” to “correct” his “fiery” temperament, so “seventy-five year old Maree,” the poet’s next-door neighbor goes through what is evidently a regular ritual: she inspects her yard, complains she is ill and can’t give the projected party “for a friend’s eighty-fifth birthday,” and “soon, the street fills with large white parked cars.” I can’t go on, I’ll go on: just so, the poet himself, sometimes speaking in the first person, sometimes referring to himself in the third, “write[s] with no anxious grasping after: sooner or later, what I am doing will come to me” (# 120).
What I find striking about this sequence is that Lazer has adapted Silliman’s model to such a different purpose and done it so well. No longer does the text tell a straightforward personal story as was the case in “Point Sur.” The use of found text allows Lazer to broaden the base of his own personal conflicts to make his poetic text representative of something beyond his everyday existence in Tuscaloosa, where his little boy sings after supper “row row row your goat.” And yet Lazer’s is not a “language poem” in the sense that Bruce Andrews or Lyn Hejinian’s are, for the particular sensibility of the poet is at the forefront, responding, constructing, reacting to his milieu and his culture.
In shifting ground so intricately, “H’s Journal” solves the problem of the poet’s previous “Doublespace,” the sharply delineated either/or of the volume by that title. A related solution is found in Early Days of the Lang Dynasty, the journal in “new sentences” composed on the poet’s recent trip to China, where he, Charles Bernstein, and James Sherry were invited to give readings. Early Days does not depend upon citation as does “H’s Journal”; rather, it decontextualizes perfectly “normal” sentences, so as to represent, as graphically as possible, the disorientation of the traveller who does not speak the language:
You could do it by yourself, and you would do it worse.
You could ask someone to help you, and you would do it better.
Having done it on your own, you did worse.
He knows the way, and you do not.
He is your friend, he will help you.
Having done it as you did it on your own, you could have done worse.
If it were yours to do over again, what would you do.
You were not the one who got the hot water; it was there waiting for you.
It’s not like home; here they’re eat up with bookstores.
“Eat up” is used here for good reason: digestion problems plague the travellers throughout:
Instead of lomotil, he took tiny yellow lotus pills to easy his diarrhea
Is the euphonious phrase “to ease his diarrhea” in instance of lyricism.
And one of the book’s key motifs is the relation of physical to spiritual nourishment:
James gets impatient with their faith in poetry and language; piety, like wheat-based products, being one of his allergies.
The paradox of the China trip is that whereas the Americans look to China for “advanced” political discussion, the Chinese only want to discuss art. “Art, they say, is the whole world.” In the end, the narrator of this charmingly ironic travel book has stopped questioning his hosts’ mores and, in a series of morphemes and sound particles reminiscent of Susan Howe’s poetry, comes to accept their difference:
The temple of heaven rests heavily on earth.
Hoe wren done dunce try day
In the Note at the back of Early Days, Lazer explains that the arithmetical principle of the book, which is divided into three parts, is” 9 x 9, or 81 sentences per section, for a total of 243 sentences.” And he explains his interest in the number nine “as a structuring device derived from Round Altar, a building in Beijing near the Temple of Heaven,” whose “geometry revolves around the imperial number nine.” But the “9” principle is not obtrusive; it functions less as a formal than as a generative device, just as “Negation,” the second sequence in 3 of 10 takes phrases from the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, and uses them anagramatically to provide the first letter of each line in the left-hand margin. Negation 3, for example, is generated from Hegel’s sentence, “It endures death and in death maintains its being.” which gives Lazer such lines as
That it must however
Nothing like it
Unreasonableness from all parties concerned
Regardless of stated intentions
sedimental mood (p. 78)
As “Negation 3” continues, we see that this “Hegelian” anagram is again a personal poem, dealing with the question of “Elective surgery,” and “Euthanasia,” so as to take the “End” out of “End(ure)” for one who is evidently a loved relative. As in the case of the citations in “H’s Journal,” and the “writings through” in “Displayspace,” the third text in 3 of 10, reading “across” and “down” gives us the sense that the poet’s own family drama can be related to a sense of the past–even the distant past–in a meaningful way. Thus the word “KEEPS,” taken from a Hegel sentence, gives Lazer the impetus to produce the complex sound play of the lines:
Kin and kind must be kept within
Sensitive to (76)
A sensitivity to “Perspective”: this is the quality we find most tellingly in 3 of 10. Lazer’s is a bravura performance that makes us look forward to his future “displayspaces.”