on Portions, poems by Hank Lazer (Lavender Ink) and Long Division, poems by Andrea Cohen (Salmon Poetry)

In his essay “Questions of ‘Spirit” (2000), Hank Lazer writes, “Poetry is, and sacredly so, most direct in its indirection and in its habitual concealment, in its very refusal to ‘mean’ directly. Knowingly, the poem is a hymn to the unknowable – poetry as an approximation and an intimation.” Honoring a world of dynamic semi-obscurity and resistance to readability, the poet pretends he has found language commensurate with that world-in-the-making, a way of speaking markedly intent on departing from the customary.

Bishop_0.jpgI say “pretends” with a statement by Elizabeth Bishop in mind. In “Mechanics of Pretence: Remarks on W.H. Auden” (1934), she says that poetry is triggered by a lucid anxiety, a sense that our received language is inadequate to the task of illuminating experience. “To connect this disproportion a pretence is at first necessary,” she writes. “By ‘pretending’ the existence of a language appropriate and comparable to the ‘things’ it must deal with, the language is forced into being … ‘Things’ gave rise to language; now the language arouses an independent life in the ‘things.’”

This is why, for the attentive reader, the world starts to look like one’s favorite poems.

Poets like to quarrel and make claims about who is most skillful at arousal. But they generally agree that poetry is a recourse against a sense of something missing, a deprivation that turns into a spectral well at auspicious moments. Some poets valorize the moment of initiation, the swerve of freed language. Others place more value on finishing gestures or the qualities of personality. But they all begin with the answering power of pretense: My spirit is hitched to a discovered language -- comprised of the world’s own mysterious force -- daring to challenge the clatter of history and my own daily muteness.

LazerCover.jpgIn Portions, his sixth full-length collection of poems, Lazer gives us work that both exerts control and makes way for attentiveness – not that these acts are oppositional. In the Jewish tradition, fifty-four portions of the Torah are read each year; each portion is named for its initial key word. “My form for each poem became 3 x 18 = 54 words, the building block of 18 being a mystical Jewish number,” Lazer writes in an afterword. The book’s three sections include 18, 36, and 18 poems respectively.

COLLATERAL

sinewy & not
moving easily from
one to the

next brought up
short praise or
why call it

a welling up
when lateral to
this bodily site

you say ecstasy
to be beside
yourself & know

it & feel
it your body
put down as

collateral as anchor
to guarantee your
return in time

“Collateral” enacts that moment when a person’s ardent wish to enter a spiritual dimension permeates and takes control of language – but the pattern of words becomes a third thing (not the body, not the world), “lateral” to the body, not “welling up” from the body but now beside it – a sacred space of creative flow. So many ambitions crackle in this slender poem – praise and commentary on praise, text and textual commentary, the precision of a poem’s moment and the poem’s instruction to drift beyond it. At the end of the poem, we “return in time” (the incantation ends, the body regains presence) only by losing the timing, the strange pace of the poem.

To set the parameters of a poem in advance would seem to defuse the poet’s instinct for discovering or deciding on form at the very moment his spirit and thoughts require it. (I know a poet who wrote a sonnet a day for a year – an exercise in stamina?) So pretense itself isn’t sufficient. What’s required is intensity of belief in its efficacy, the confidence to follow an intimation. Lazer wrote within his 54-word invented form for five years.

Lazer.jpgIn the end, what persists is the presence of the poem. In “Blank,” Lazer begins, “the words begin / as proper designations / to leave me.” If so, they move us because they are immediately reinstated. Lazer wants us to apprehend poetry as simultaneous reception and broadcast. The words, however fugitive, are also finite, and as they sound out the speaker’s earnest impulse they also turn the poem into a strange, handled, employed thing. Lazer calls poetry “an approximation” – but its incompleteness, its withholding of self-interpretation, is designed to enhance its role-playing of indomitability.

The parceled out words of Portions are often their own subject -- like prayer they convey meaning while carrying us toward it. Sometimes Lazer the postmodernist is also a quasi-rabbinical homilist:

SCRIPT

there is a
script hidden away
a micro script

script of utter
simplicity & end
less variety we

are the book
for carrying the
script & we

are its telling
we make manifest
its recipes its

pro scriptions its
errors & minute
differences we now

extract & map
this projective script
text & commentary

When in “Memory” he begins “the seduction of / declaration that’s what / the sentence offers,” he seems to be repeating a cranky complaint about poems that make statements and refuse to let text be text. In the poem, a little girl swings from a tree branch and creates a sentence equivalent to her joy: “I love // to climb.” she and her sentence enter …

into the odd

circuitry of memory
truly strange the
way such dimensions

of space contract
& expand unfelt
in present tense

LazerBW.jpgThe memory “in present tense,” reduced to one seductive statement, is actually “unfelt.” Thus we must embrace and resist the poem at the same time – since it is yet another sentence (fractured, yes, but still linear, packed with intention), both contained and riding beyond itself on a vector of speculation. To speak this way is “the body’s / own good song” (“Good”).

Lazer devises a poetry that may be simple – but discourages simplification. It is methodically enigmatic – without seeming cagey or willed. His preferred pretense is that the poet has no special access to lucidity – the poem must renounce facile understanding and free language to encounter experience, and not be too intent on clarifying it.

Now consider this poem from Andrea Cohen’s second book, Long Division:

CUL-DE-SAC

It happened:
rainless days
when water
rushed the cul-
de-sac’s gutter.

We built little
dams of twigs
and grass, little
rafts of grass
and twigs.

Chance
said which
green thing
floated off,
which remained.

The we?
The me
who drifted,
the me
who stayed.

This poem may be as trim as any in Portions, but it creates a pretense of weight through narrative, cohesion of memory (our reflexive regard for memory as substantive), and the populating of the poem with a conventional speaker, a “we” and a “me.” “Cul de Sac” is as intent on gathering substance as Lazer’s “Collateral” is on eluding it (and using language, a mercurial substance both numinous and gritty, to get there). Yet these poems are similar in striking ways – theme (what coheres, what drifts), rhetorical form (proposition, contemplation), and extreme economy. Cohen may evince none of Lazer’s nervosity about language itself, yet her final stanza seems to question the purpose and phrasing of the memory that precedes it.

CohenBook.jpg“Cul de Sac” seems at first to float off on the blithe drift of its child-like language (twigs and grass, grass and twigs, little dams, little rafts). Everything is dual: rainless/water rushing, dams/rafts, we/me, drift/stay, child remembered/adult speaking. This is the book’s “long division.” There is sweetness in the voice and an amused or affectionate eye – but also the candor of examined self-division. One always senses that this poet wants her speech to sound highly intentional.

Long Division is a book of wit and played-out premises, voicing a tone of familiarity with the reader, description and comment, extended tropes. But some of my favorite poems are short pieces that exploit Cohen’s talent for a turning toward a mystery, premise becoming situation, ending with a strange and ominous image. The “habitual concealment” of Lazer’s poetry exists as a quick lyric outlet in Cohen’s work:

SHARP

You’d be surprised
what can become a knife.

But only once.
Once you need

a blade, suffice
to say they’re everywhere:

toothbrush, pen,
finger chiseled to a point.

The point?
Once begun,

there’s no end
to the machete-

hacked path, no
conclusion to the jungle.

But Cohen is mainly a poet of social commentary, and the deeper one gets into her book (there are 71 poems in this collection), the more one must conclude that she and Lazer are poets of divergent poetries.

TERRIBLE IN MATH

In sixth grade
in a yellow pinafore

in the middle
of long division,

I climbed atop
the teetering book case,

pretending
to be God,

which prompted
Miss Bromley

to detain me,
though later

she stroked my cheek
and instructed me

hereafter not to
pretend, but be.

I would have clipped
the wings of all

my angels, so much
did I worship her.

Cohen’s unclipped angel is a wag, pretending to take one step away from the immediacy of experience (just as on principle, Lazer pretends to take a step beyond it) in order to objectify its quality in words. In the final lines of “Ode to the Alphabet,” she invokes the “eternal possibility” of language – but though she asks to be used by language, Cohen is a highly conscious user, perched on the book case as ever, disrupting the sober exercise of long division with a wisecrack in order to divert our attention to the disorderly world:

Lullaby, alibi, ransom, confession,
say that I have not used you in vain
and instead use me,
trip and trickle, bark and break
down my body’s
corridors of thirty-six assorted springs,
you of eternal possibility,
footbridge across the wildest chasm.

Cohen.jpgLong Division points directly to alternate significance in current events. In “Recycling Day,” the speaker asks, “At which juncture will gloved hands rummage / through us, plundering, assessing, hauling off?” It is as if the speaker is gifted with a double-sightedness – but also, constantly amazed by her own double nature, one part “drifted,” the other “stayed.” This vision must resort to memory narratives in order to understand itself, while the force of memory seeks a clarifying outlet in new phrasing to please a receptive, companionable reader. The result: the lovely, unexpected and revelatory ending of “Fun House:”

I remember
glancing into a brittle corner
and seeing me repeating
into infinity, a kind of
terrifying stutter that must
have seemed too much
like my future, which made me
scream loud and long enough
to shake the snake girl
from her post, so she could lead me
tenderly out a mirrored door
in her gown of sea-
green sequins, in which
I could see myself:
shimmering, green, companioned.

[Long Division, poems by Andrea Cohen. Published in May, 2009 by Salmon Poetry (Ireland). 120 pages, $21.95, paperback.]

[Portions, poems by Hank Lazer. Published July, 2009 by Lavender Ink (New Orleans). 106 pages, $10.00, paperback]

Hank Lazer’s essays are collected in Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays 1996-2008, published April, 2008 by Omnidawn Publishing, $19.95 paperback

Cohen/Lazer

First I want to praise the opening remarks in this article... Cogent understandings of nebuous ideas.And Lazer /Cohen! Glad to meet them. Grace Cavalieri