A Review of Elegies and Vacations by Hank Lazer
Elegies and Vacations
Elegies and Vacations, Hank Lazer's eleventh book, is a brilliantly diverse collection, comprehensive in scope and a pleasure to read. Though the book contains only eleven poems, they range in length from one to forty pages, and are as various in subject matter and form as the title might suggest. The diversity of the collection is of note since formal coherence has been rather a trademark of Lazer's books. His last book, Days (Lavender Ink, 2002, which I published), for example, utilizes a single form-- ten short lines. His previous book, 3 of 10 (Chax, 1996), is comprised of only three long poems. His first full-length book, Doublespace (Segue, 1992 and 2005), is divided into two halves, one half reading from the front and one from the back, the front half being "straight" narrative, often family-oriented, poems, and the back half a collection of language experiments utilizing collage, texts borrowed from other disciplines (especially law), and other non-subjective procedures. Thus Lazer's work has been organized, to date, in rather large scale forms, and while these forms represent various themes and styles, they are each distinct and thoroughly developed. From the mirrored halves of Doublespace, to the triple-space of 3 of 10, to the single-form space of Days, the books share a respect for size and coherence.
Elegies and Vacations represents, at least at first glance, a break from this trend. My first impression was that of a miscellany of quite distinct poems. Forms range from the ten word, ten line block stanzas of "Portrait" to the double columned prose of "Work Ups" to the Olson-like free stanzas of "This One." The short procedural piece, "For John Cage," precedes the forty page lyric "Deathwatch for My Father," whose overt emotional content and modernist line and syntax contrast sharply to the non-subjective nod to Cage. The title, the pairing of elegies and vacations, seems to imply random juxtaposition or a paratactic ordering, as in collage. The implication is of a scrapbook, bricolage, whatever is found along the way-- a pairing of the poetic and the mundane, of the textual and the physical, a memento, a ticket or a leaf pressed to the sheet beside the text. High seriousness and levity. Death and idle leisure.
Elegies and Vacations is in fact a book that is organized around the same pairing of opposites and the same principle of collage-- embodied, as well, in the haunting cover photo by Wayne Sides-- we saw in Doublespace. David Ignatow called Doublespace "a noble attempt to bridge the chasm between Language poetry and the traditional anectdotal and meditative poetry of the 'free form' mode." What is noble about Elegies and Vacations isn't the attempt to "bridge the chasm" but rather to plumb its depths, as the book, in its structure and in its content, attempts to remain in the breach and defer resolution indefinitely.
Lazer is the only poet I can imagine quoting Frost and Oppen in the same poem, as he does in "Deathwatch for My Father," or borrowing, stylistically, from both, as he does throughout the book. The following sequence from "Deathwatch" might serve as both a stylistic example and a partial explanation. (In the sequence just preceding this, Lazer has been remembering a golf game with his father):
as a poet
to think about
that last round
takes me to a rhetorical
hazard the emotional msg
the flavor enhancing phrases
of the manipulative personal
poem the vast litany
of "for the last time,"
"finally," "never again,"
"so much" "ultimately"
"if ever" etcetera
in golf these phrases
amount to hitting the shot
fat you have been
a major part of my poems
since i wrote "point sur"
in 1972 though clearly
poems are not much like
Like elegies and vacations, poems and fathers are not much alike. But through the poem-- the poem as the avenue or the course of difference-- one might discover, pay homage to, or even create, progenitors. The complex pun, message vs. monosodium glutamate, is both a nod to high modernist roots, the abbreviations used by Cummings and Pound, and, in content, a critique of them. This course is full of hazards: as MSG is used to spice up mediocre food, rhetoric (like extended golf metaphors) can be used to enhance the poem, but the danger is of a generic emotion, which tastes good at first but digests poorly, like cheap restaurant food. This stanza both represents and enacts the perils of mixing subjective and objective poetics (ie Frost and Oppen). The poet cannot, here, be precisely himself, but must engage in a meta-poetic in(tro)spection, even to the point of imagining possible lines or lines of possibility. The stanza concludes with what might be a confession of one of the book's compositional methods:
... in fact i imagined
yesterday telling a friend
"we can only love
purely and fully
someone quite different
from ourselves" (31)
This equation of love and difference propounded in the imaginary conversation is a metonym for the book's large scale strategy. The fact that this poem and others favor apostrophe, or simply a second person narrative, should not be overlooked. The apostrophe reaches toward the intimacy that is the goal of traditional subjective poetries, often categorized under the term "lyric". But at the same time there is a realization that the person is not the poem. Despite any attempt or realization of intimacy, the conversation remains imagined. The trick is to avoid both manipulating and being manipulated by the "personal / poem...". The line break here mirrors the one further along— "poems are not much like / you..."— the break between the person and the poem. One can love "purely and fully" only by naming this difference.
One of the basic movements of the book, then, is an homage to and/or a search for and reconciliation of progenitors, both familial and poetic. The opening poem, "'to what are we ancestral'," explains as follows:
... i carried
forward their stories i pledged
to do so & so
took up this calling of words
i did it with their ear
nonnative to this language
& i unaccustomed to
this genre & the people of it (1)
In pledging to carry forward the family stories (a project begun in the first half of Doublespace), Lazer, almost unwittingly, pledges also to carry forward a poetics. Just as his immigrant forebears had to learn a new language in order to pass their stories on to him, so he had to learn this new genre and— significantly the closing phrase— "the people of it." To carry forward, like a tally from the previous page, the stories of the progenitors, one must acquire a new and unfamiliar set of progenitors. And within the adopted family of poetry, new allegiances will form. Thus poetic and familial forebears will come to stand in the same tree, in-laws, so to speak.
And so it is that the poem "Portrait," an homage to John Ashbery, seems to carry hardly any less emotional resonance than "Deathwatch for My Father." "Deathwatch," to be sure, is longer and more overtly emotional, as it chronicles the last days of Lazer's father's life, but in "Portrait" there is a (properly Ashberian) covert emotional content. Likewise, where "Deathwatch" utilizes a short, Frostian, line and a usually straightforward narrative, "Portrait" imitates Ashbery's rangy, formalized, often surreal imagery and his long line ("which has become your signatured way, languorous, late nineteenth century." ):
.... Friends come by to say
they love you, which is nice, but means there must
also be some pressure now to say so. They do
love you, and the best elegy is an early one. (5)
The early elegy is, of course, auto-description— another metapoetic moment. Since Ashbery is still alive, one would expect a difference in point of view between this poem and "Deathwatch." However, as "Deathwatch" was begun not as an elegy but as, in fact, a deathwatch, before Charles Lazer died, the difference in the circumstances of composition is not as great as it might at first seem. Both poems are written in second person, the only exception being that the dated sections of "Deathwatch" switch to third person on the day Charles dies. When the man disappears, so does the apostrophe. The effect of this very graceful and subtle stylistic movement is quite striking; within the poem, no other notice is needed.
Ashbery's presence is felt again in a less elegaic piece, "The Abacos." This poem develops a paratactic coupling of a meditation on Ashbery's poetics and an Abacos island vacation. The parataxis, though, takes on meaning, as it always does:
.... In fact, John
seems always on vacation,
as if perpetually bemused
with no fiduciary
or occupational concern. (73)
Reading John's poetry is a vacation
tinged in various exotic packages and plans;
each exacts a price, is never particularly
mean-spirited, in fact, is quite congenial,
soothing, amusing, you'll want to come back
having noticed the off-rhyme with
your specific dailiness.... (80)
If Ashbery is one of the primary poetic poles of the book, another is George Oppen. Originally, Elegies and Vacations was to have two epigraphs, one from Oppen and one from Ashberry. In what Lazer calls a "fortuitous error," the epigraphs were omitted by the publisher. The passages were these:
Floating heart, why
Wander on senselessly? The tall guardians
Of yesterday are steep as cliff shadows;
Whatever path you take abounds in their sense.
All presently lead downward, to the harbor view.
(Ashbery, from “Business Personals”)
To go perhaps unarmed
And unarmored, to return
Now to the old questions—
(George Oppen, from “Guest Room”)
Lazer goes on to add that "... Ashbery and Oppen form conflicting or radically different polestars for the book: Ashbery’s lush extended languorous sentences constituting a pleasurable (almost sinful or hedonistic or self-indulgent) 'vacation' within language, and Oppen’s more astringent, ethical and metaphysical questioning being more in keeping with the intensity and seriousness of 'elegy.'"*
Other poetic forebears have their moments in the book also. Theodore Enslin, Larry Eigner, Kenneth Burke, Robert Duncan, John Taggart, Lyn Hejinian-- these join Cage and Frost and Lazer's parents and grandparents in the pantheon of relations that this book explores. Elegies and Vacations is an extended and complex meditation on progenitors— poetic, familial, and otherwise. It continues the project Lazer began in Doublespace by attempting to fill in, or traverse again, the space between its two halves, which can be fairly said to represent the poles of contemporary American poetry. Elegies and Vacations, far from a miscellany, is a comprehensive examination by a poet who has explored the breadth of contemporary poetics as fully as anyone writing in English today.
*Information about the "lost" epigraphs and the quote are from an unpublished interview entitled "Poetics for Andrew Mossin."