Elegies & Vacations by Hank Lazer
[£9.95 Salt]

The eleven poems in this book, ranging from one to forty pages in length, are all different from each other - in tone, intention, mood and format. The second poem, 'Portrait', is my favourite. It reminds me of John Ash. A delightful homage to a writer, possibly John Ashbery, it is very satisfying to read, and at five pages is neither too long nor too short.

I can hear Lazer's voice here, which is lucid, delicate and controlled, though the style differs substantially from the other poems. This is because he is self-consciously adopting the style of the portrait's subject. It is a very clever and witty exercise in style that also stands on its own merits, and is one example of Lazer experimenting to match his subject.

On first reading, 'Portrait' was very reminiscent of some of the poems in John Ash's wonderful 'The Burnt Pages' - the long and languorous lines that don't fit on the page, the camp wit, the eloquent turns of phrase and ornate language, the playful line-breaks, the extended metaphors, the sardonic observations of culture and the vagaries of history.

For example, 'the // practical but atouristic canals which so impressed Marco Polo eight / hundred years ago, though now the translations of his travel / writings are keyed to different city names and you cannot / find exactly what he said and prize-winning historians snicker at / Polo's inconsistencies and amusing ethnocentrisms.' ('Portrait')

And this could well have been lifted from a John Ash poem: ' if the townspeople could take on a hospitable swiss-like / or hawaiian eagerness to please, then fearful busloads of hard / currency would be doled out among rock gardens and rickshaws / bicycling amidst the dolorous sycamores, and you among them with / your boyish grin.'

Lazer then goes on to address, apparently, the subject of his 'Portrait' - 'Sentences stretch out this way, / which has become your signatured way, languorous, late nineteenth century, / wistful' And a little later: 'your loquacious threnody proves / to be a sousa music of our time, a wry / march, with a grin, into the sunset of our national / decline.'

It was at this point that I began to think it is more likely to be about Ashbery, considering as well that Ash and Lazer are of the same generation. That I can be reminded so strongly of Ash in a poem presumably about the Ashbery (though I am not sure - I would love to know who it's really about) shows how much of an influence the latter had on the former.

I want to quote this because I like it. 'It's inventory day in the jewelry / store in the mall, and your job, which requires you / to stay after, is to count the cultured pearls and / to categorize their various sheens, which you would never consent / to do if you did not have rent and electricity / bills to pay and an almost desperate need to live / on your own'

'Portrait' is a well-told and circumlocuting story, full of brilliant observations. Reading it alongside the other poems, I was amazed at Lazer's versatility and control. Having never heard of him before I am on the look-out for his previous ten books, which may include lines like this - 'an utterly puzzled look, the facial equivalent of / addressee unknown'

Despite the humour, there is a strong elegiac note in this poem, which sets the tone for the rest of the book. This quote from 'Portrait' could be a description of the forty-page elegy: '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.'

'Deathwatch for My Father' is an elegy the poet started writing at the deathbed. Thankfully, Lazer manages to avoid sentimentality and poetic clichˇ, creating a real and honest account of watching someone close to him die. Illustrative of the more direct, spare language is: 'judicious / use // his vanishing / voice // says only / i // am very / tired'

Without trying to be post-modern or literary in the face of this difficult subject, the poem is also an affecting meditation on the limitations of art. 'in my poetry class / i am teaching george open / a poet of the greatest / integrity one still interested / in truth  he would i know / encourage me ...  to / test poetry in the face of the worst events' ('Deathwatch')

Halfway through, when there is hope that his father may prolong his life with experimental drugs, Lazer comments on the ability of experiment poetry to prolong life, or the experience of having lived, in poetry: 'healthy / or moreso / as each / injected with / the experimental / which in this / instance / opens up / time / & some of it / together'

He is aware of the limits of art, or rather the subtleties of life. 'it cannot be told / not his life not / the dying not a single / day cannot be / told properly cannot be / told fully not / possible to account for / the fine gradations / of change the in / explicable shiftings / from weaker to stronger / & back again not / possible to be exactly / faithful to any / instance'

While 'Deathwatch' is an observed and poignant elegy, there is also room for black humour, which is as much the patient's as Lazer's - 'dr. Pearlstein specified in his will that he wished to be cre- / mated, and that in keeping with california law, he wished to be / cremated in"'a suitable container". which he specified as a large / brown paper bag.'

'Elegies & Vacations' was a delight to read, because I get bored very easily and the type-setting and style of each poem is so different to the next. It also produced a very calming effect on me - not sedative, but something akin to the lucidity you feel when you have recovered from a terrible hangover - the result of having been very quiet and still all day.

The last poem, 'Sunyata Sonata', consists of five parts, three of which are variations on the idea-phrase 'no ideas / but in things', whereas two of them are white space under the subtitles '(largo Š breathing attentively)'
and '(largo vivace - breathing attentively)'. It is a poem for breathing - Buddhist sheet music for the lungs. Pretentious? Oh yes. But fun.

            © Paul Rowland 2004