Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Jake Marmer introduces four concrete poems by Hank Lazer.
If you’ve been to an old-school Sephardic synagogue or a Hasidic shtibl, you’re likely to have seen various specimen of Shiviti, plaques which traditionally adorn the corner of the shul where the chazzan is stationed. They spell out names and attributes of the Divine, for inspirational and meditational purposes — with aesthetics as an integral element of the experience. Shiviti are what contemporary critics would call an early example of concrete poetry, that is, poetry where meaning is conveyed not only through words, but also through the arrangement of the poem on the page.
While acknowledging the modernist concrete poetry of e.e. cummings and Guillaume Apollinaire, the four poems by Hank Lazer featured below appear to have a lot in common with Shiviti. They too are mediations, opening doors into the realm of ritualistic, perhaps even liturgical moments. It is not accidental then, that the third poem — the one that spells out the Hebrew letter shin — was written for the dedication of the new temple in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where Lazer resides and teaches English at the University of Alabama.
The graphic arrangement of these poems prods the reader toward a new state of attention, calling for an instantaneous intake of the whole picture — the symbol that upholds the poetry like a vessel, framing the poetic experience. A new dynamic comes to the fore, as well: In the second poem, which spells out the number 18 — traditionally a Jewish equivalent of the word “chai,” or “life” — the figure 8 has lines of poetry cycling through it as if through infinity, offering the reader multiple points of entry. This approach challenges the very idea of a poetic “line,” turning the text, instead, towards an unending loop that reincarnates itself, responding to the poem’s central image of “turning as we do upon the invisible loom.”
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