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.
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The comment in the upper-right corner begins to take off as a poetic meditation that collapses into a flat, mundane observation. Given the lofty tone of the neighboring segment, this seeming banality demonstrates the comic juxtaposition of our metaphysical stirrings and digestive grumblings.

The upside-down vignette in the midright section is a personal recollection. Lazer is a professor at the University of Alabama, where he’s worked for more than three decades. You can hear him channeling a 30 year old memory: of breaking the news about getting his job, perhaps to his grandmother Fanya, whose Yiddish-tinged accent he reproduces: “vut, hanky, vith / a banjo on / your knee.”

Even the poem’s shape resembles a string instrument. With the lilt of Fanya’s accent, the reference to a banjo, the melancholy tone of a juxtaposed segment “at / home / here / with very / little / certain,” this poem reads musically, imbued with that great old blues-feeling of displacement, a sense of nowhere to go and uncertainty as to what comes next.

Or perhaps not simply so. Maybe deeply metaphysical concerns of Levinas anchor the author’s mind; or, hold down the author’s focus like a paper press.

Both anchor and paper-press shapes can be discerned by looking at the poem — and so can numerous others. Free associations come and go: crowding, layering the text with more meanings. Reading the poem, we turn the page this direction and that, just the way thoughts swirl around in our minds. The poem’s rotation perpetuates itself. With no formal beginning or end to the narrative, the poem is in constant motion. And given the context of the words encompassed in the work, there’s a sense of spiraling: “turn / & turn / & turn / inward” he says in another untitled composition.

The turn inward, to spirituality, is a primary concern for Lazer, one that precedes poetry and at the same necessitates it: “and all of man’s spirituality would be prophetic” he quotes Levinas in one of the poems. A spiritual experience of written improvisation, then, brings forth an outcome where poetry and prophecy converge. With phrases like Levinas’s “center of gravity of existence is outside of existence,” Steinsaltz’s “nullification of being” or his own “the turn became a calling / in turning,” it’s clear that the author is preoccupied with the mystery of human existence.

Before turning to the “Notebooks” project that this book is part of, Lazer worked on a series of 54-word poems, a form he invented, among others. The poet approaches his forms ritualistically, coming back to them repeatedly, sometimes for years at a stretch. And it is thus that he invites his readers to join his rite — a newly forged opening in thinking about poetry, and in thinking about thinking itself.

Jake Marmer is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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