Thoughts That Move in Space

Hank Lazer’s ‘Shape Poems’ Show Creation in Real Time

By Jake Marmer

Published June 20, 2012, issue of June 22, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

N18 (Complete)
By Hank Lazer
Singing Horse Press, 84 pages, $15

We associate the best literature with amnesia: While the book is open, we forget ourselves, curled up on a couch while the world melts away. Going through Hank Lazer’s latest poetry collection, “N18,” the reader is likely to experience precisely the opposite: Instead of a sense of escape, Lazer’s poems stimulate acute self-awareness. Moreover, through the act of reading and thinking, they flex the atrophied muscles of consciousness.

“N18” is a facsimile of the author’s handwritten notebook of “shape-poems,” as he terms them in the preface. For these works, the handwritten layout is at least as important as the actual words that comprise the poems; in fact, the two are inseparable. Similar experiments with nontraditional layout have existed since the ancient Greeks, but they became truly pervasive after the age of high modernism — perhaps most famously in Apollinaire’s “Il Pleut,” or e.e. cummings’s “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r.” And although occasionally Lazer’s shapes resemble symbols or objects, most of the time they go a step further and represent the flow of the author’s thoughts, bringing us as readers to the awareness of our own, analogous flow: “[P]ay attention pay attention to what / what exactly it is that calls us into attention,” the author beckons in one of the works.

Most of us consider our brain something of a black box: Thoughts go in, thoughts go out. What they “do” inside — and how — is a question we relegate, at best, to neurobiology or psychoanalysis. If the former addresses the matter in a dryly chemical manner, the latter puts forth a highly abstract, narrative-driven approach. Lazer, author of 17 books of poetry and accomplished avant-garde practitioner, offers another dimension: “vectored thinking.”

If everything we experience happens in motion across the plane of space, it then seems logical that our thoughts, feelings and imagination would also be motion driven. Lazer charts the movement of a thought — its cadence; its circularity; its motion as it surges, collapses and intersects with other thoughts before ultimately trailing off. The effect is intensified by the fact that Lazer’s poems, like our thoughts, are unedited: Each page displays, as the author puts it, “a complete commitment to the page as one-time improvisation — a highly focused composition in real time, without drafts and rewrites.”

The poem below (titled with only a date, “8/29/10”), like most other works in the collection, contains quotes from various books that Lazer is reading. French Jewish philosopher Emmanual Levinas is the main source here, but there are other voices as well, which are as diverse as Adin Steinsaltz, Rodger Kamenetz and Lao-Tzu. Divorcing these quotes from their context, juxtaposing them with one another and with his own thoughts, Lazer edges into the world of “found art.” As he lifts these ideas out of the realm of philosophy and abstraction, he makes them more tangible.

Notice how one of the Levinas quotes, “clothed with purely borrowed being,” curls around the left corner. There’s added shapeliness to this phrase; perhaps it is a beginning of vertigo; maybe there’s the half-illuminated arch in it, a doorway. The shape is suggestive, but to comment on the details of it is like ascribing semantic meaning to a jazz riff: fun but endlessly subjective, and beside the point. What’s more important — as is the case with jazz, too — is the phrase’s interplay with the poem’s other elements.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.