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Covid 19 Sutras by Hank Lazer (Lavender Ink, New Orleans)

Covid 19 Sutras by Hank Lazer (Lavender Ink, New Orleans)

In writing about Hank Lazer’s 2019 collection of poems Slowly Becoming Awake (Dos Madres Press) for issue 28 of Lou Rowan’s Seattle-based magazine Golden Handcuffs Review I referred to a ‘Notebook’ entry for October 7th 2016: ‘poem radiating outward’ with its immediate follow-on, ‘landfall the page’. The strings of thought in Lazer’s new collection act in a similar fashion as the particularity of the moment is seen against a spiritual and philosophical awareness of the progress and effects of the Covid 19 virus. In a comment made by Charles Bernstein after reading these poems Hank Lazer ‘precisely notates the passing of time through pandemic and uprising’:

‘Consciousness alights on each poem “like a butterfly drawn to a bright flower,” offering luminous company in dark times.’

That luminosity is brightly evident from the opening four lines of the first poem:

‘books & blossoms
spring & all
cold morning no
wind cloud bank’

What is contained in the reading of books and the world of flowering is perhaps brought into focus by the early lines of William Carlos Williams’s 1923 volume Spring and All: ‘a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world’. As Williams escorts his readers along ‘the road to the contagious hospital / under the surge of the blue / mottled clouds driven from the / northeast – a cold wind’ Lazer takes us

‘over the mountain
ridge city & its
tower in the distance’

The journey of this remarkable collection of poems charts a pathway along the moments of a sutra as we come to terms with the effects of both the pandemic and institutionalised racism as are asked to question the nature of wants and needs:

‘the treasure store
is open you
can take what
you want – no

you can take
what you need
through practice
you may learn

to receive what
is already yours
here is the bell sound
to awaken you’

It was Shakespeare’s King Lear who exposed the central nature of the relationship between wants and needs when he was confronted by his daughters removing from him every token of what is meant by the royalty of oneself. Goneril and Regan remove his train of followers and insist that his needs can be cared for by their own servants. However, it is when Regan delivers the final brutal blow of ‘What need one?’ that Lear pronounces his understanding of what it is to be human:

‘O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s’

Lazer questions what changed ‘when the virus / hit’ and wonders whether ‘connection’ breaks ‘away’. It is perhaps in this nature of connection, who we were and who we are now, what we want and we need, that the poet also finds an echo of a sound from later than Shakespeare. As the bell sounds ‘to awaken you’ we can hear the quiet conclusion to a tale told by an ancient mariner whose guilt had not only weighed him down but had compelled him to tell his tale.

In the second ‘Sutra’, subtitled ‘flattening the curve’ the distance we have travelled (guided by the science) leads the poet to question the nature of ‘liberation’. A sense of spiritual wonder at the moving of the clouds of unknowing has become a mark on a door made ‘with numbers & distance / given us by our sciences’. The ‘hurry to find / a cure’ and the ‘hurry to assign // blame’ is placed against a perspective that Gary Snyder had recognised in his years spent in the Yosemite range of mountains in the 1950s. For Hank Lazer

‘this place
perfect
hillside
light shadow

& a view
of the pasture
having become
this changing light’

For Gary Snyder

‘distant dogs bark, a pair of
cawing crows; the twang
of a pygmy nuthatch high in a pine –
from behind the cypress windrow
the mare moves up, grazing’

The quiet and individual intelligence of Hank Lazer’s poems is perhaps contained in his awareness of the particularity that constitutes played music being ‘never the same twice’. As he puts it in ‘Sutra 3’, subtitled ‘phased reopening’, the individual is ‘here now’ and can ‘see only a small fraction of it’. Faced with the unknown enormity of the pandemic it is worth perhaps bearing in mind the section concerning humility in the late fourteenth-century treatise ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ in which the author asserted that humility was ‘nothing else but a true knowledge and awareness of oneself as one really is’. And one response to this statement may be found in Lazer’s poem:

‘The pictures of Jupiter answer some of the
questions.
This world here & your life in time are not what
you think they are.
If it is a cloud of unknowing know that the cloud
like any weather is constantly changing.’

What was immediately recognised by Rae Armantrout when commenting on the importance of this collection of poems was that it ‘brings us the news in the way that 18th century ballad broadsides did to Londoners’:

‘Quatrain by quatrain, Lazer sings the present world, its viruses (covid and structural racism), and its beauties (animals, friendship, the shape of a sentence).’

Just as Hank Lazer’s earlier collection had presented the reader with the poem radiating outward this new collection offers us a world in which

‘each day is
rich
in its
specifics’

Ian Brinton, 7th September 2020

Cambridge Companion To American Poetry Since 1945

Cambridge Companion To American Poetry Since 1945

The Cambridge Companion To American Poetry Since 1945 edited by Jennifer Ashton (Cambridge University Press 2013) offers a useful guide to post-war and late twentieth century American poetry. It covers a broad range of poetries, although says little about non-institutional poets, with each essay providing a valuable list of further reading.

 

The editor, Jennifer Ashton, opens with an essay ‘Periodizing Poetic Practice since 1945’, which eschews socio-historical grounding in the materiality of poetic endeavour in favour of an approach based on poetry movements linked to aesthetic and philosophical questions. It thus omits the impact of War and violence on the one hand and developments in publishing on the other and does not show how the movements worked and gained dominance in cultural terms.  The approach, whilst attempting to link to questions of the poem’s relationship to meaning, intentionality, materiality, response, value, experience and ordinary language, cuts off a set of deeper questions and divides, such as between print and voice, who bestows critical ascendancy, how the judgement process operates and thus hides alternatives. The Chronology of Publications and Events is highly selective and omits a number of national poetry award winners.

 

Mark Scroggins’ essay ‘From Late Modernism of the Objectivists to the Proto-postmodernism of Projective Verse’ shows the roots of Projective Verse in Objectivism and delineates the far-reaching impact of Olson on Ginsberg and the Beats, Robert Duncan and the San Francisco Renaissance, Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts movement, and some of the Language poets.  There is another way of looking at this that might see open-field poetics as more of a development that stemmed from William Carlos Williams and the connections around Black Mountain staff and the Black Mountain Review. Certainly the Olson-Creeley correspondence, the work of Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan’s attempts to bring mythology into the poetic field are pivotal. The essay, whilst brilliant on Zukofsky’s relevance, ignores Ed Dorn and Olson’s impact on English poetry. Nevertheless it is a very useful and important essay.

 

I found Deborah Nelson’s ‘Confessional School’ essay curiously limited.  It provides a social-political background stemming from the Cold War and the Supreme Court battles for privacy but fails to fully reference the historical moment with more local and wider connections between the select few poets that it highlights. In contrast, Charles Altieri’s ‘Surrealism as a Living Modernism’, illuminates the relationship between three New York School poets and two schools of painting, figurative and surrealistic, and shows how their concerns fused, has a stronger sense of the social-historical specifics and brings its connections more alive.

 

Michael Davidson on the San Francisco Renaissance, Ronna Johnson on Three Generations of Beat Poetics, Margo Natalie Crawford on The Black Arts Movement, Steve McCaffrey on the political background to Language Writing, Nick Selby on Ecopoetries in America and Lisa Sewell on Feminist Poetries are all strong on radical thought and offer well-written introductions. I found Oren Izenberg’s essay on the plight of the scholar poet to be particularly perceptive. Hank Lazar provides a sociological reading of American poetry and its institutions, with plenty of useful statistics, and a sense that there is debate around the institutionalisation of poetry and differing interpretations of what a poet is. I missed an essay on non-academic poets, such as, Charles Bukowski, Edward Field, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, etc, who are completely ignored. The essay on Rap, Hip Hop and Spoken Word, whilst referencing slam competitions as non-academic, is insufficient in terms of grasping the wider non-academic field. Similarly an essay on the geography of American poetry would have also offered more balance and width as well as producing a more sociological insights. Jennifer Ashton’s essay on the poetry of the first decade of the twenty first century concludes that the poem’s forms and the world’s formal structures are what matters most.

 

‘The force of the work is to remind us that neither it nor the world it inhabits can be altered by our responses to it or by its effects on us – by, say, our feeling “complete”; they can only be altered by a change to their form. In this respect, we may well have arrived at a crucial dialectical shift in the social and aesthetic history of poetry: a new modernism: post-postmodernism.’

 

 

David Caddy

 

 

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