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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Geraldine McKenzie reviews

Days, by Hank Lazer

This piece is 1,300 words or about three printed pages long.

‘There are many things to do in music’ says John Coltrane, one of the presiding spirits of Days, Hank Lazer’s most recent book of poetry. One could add — and many to do in poetry. Days is charged with this sense of possibilities, a passionate commitment to play and the chances each day brings, exploring the spaces from ‘lower limit speech/ to upper limit/ music’ (194). Structurally, Days recalls H’s Journal in Lazer’s earlier work, 3 of 10, but while the latter is composed of sentences, 40 at a time, Days consists of 10 line poems — there are many things to do with 10 lines — each is allotted a day rather than pooling, as the sentences do, thus conveying a sense of time ticking over, of unstayable movement whereas H’s Journal evokes a sense of accumulations, the sentences hoarded and then produced in a body.
     If I can sustain this comparison a little further, where the poet of H’s Journal is both tempted by and resists the aphorism, the poet of Days is similarly engaged in a surrender and resistance to the lyric, which can blossom in a phrase — ‘the azure elsewhere’ (13) — or, rediscovering the song source, move to new rhythms, jazz rhythms, launched into the ‘quick zig zag attack’ (5) of a seeming improvisation.
     The impulse of the traditional lyric is often to isolate, objectify even, while maintaining a cosy illusion of connectedness, but Lazer opts for a more robust inclusiveness —

394 ‘That too will be included in it.’ — ‘you mean what I’m saying just now?’ — ‘that too’

H’s Journal

Days is full of ‘the numerous cacophony/ of many/ talking thinking’ — the voices of other poets, musicians, Lazer’s family and friends. They ‘play the poem/ into many voices’ (166).  Some poems swing open to allow Lazer the man rather than poet (if such distinctions are sustainable) to call out — ‘hey che quianzi/ how’s the weather/ in suzhou’ (120), others create a moment of intersection between the reader, the poem and an exterior dialogue — ‘this could be/ a way we’d have/ a way of staying in touch...’ (50). There is  a pervading sense of a busy fruitful life, of arguments, conversations and correspondences, of responses required — ‘over’ (29) and the crucial role of the reader in making these poems —

this subdivision of

days upon fixed

plots not a

tract exactly in

fact encouraging

you the owner

to build in

the individual

istic touches that

make it distinct

— 202

We are also reminded that the poet himself is as much reader as poet where the only avowed intent is play —

you put them

there & fix

their place in blocks

& in columns

as you will

& then they have

quite apart from

you relations

all their own

with which you are amused


In 3 of 10, Lazer wrote of  the self being ‘the intersection of many forces’ (Displayspace 10), this idea is renewed in Days and extended beyond the self to words, poems, ‘song sweeps/ upward and across’ (88) — Lazer opens it all up, eschewing the simplistic dichotomies of oppositionalism in favour of ‘each point a hub/ radiating infinite spokes’ where ‘spokes’ then opens further into ‘spokes/ person’, a characteristic movement in this playful text which often uses line breaks to move from a smaller (seeming) word to a larger. Breathe in, out — this movement of opening into the world is matched by a going in deeper ‘and be a/ Columbus to/ whole new inward’ (175). Lazer enters a word and finds its components — new meanings, deeper echoes, thus — ‘de core poor real’  (66).  Moreover, this sense of expansion, whether it be outwards or inwards, is also present in the recurring image/ idea of a day opening, for the days in Days are beginning, swelling, many poems are flush with light and it’s interesting to note here, again from H’s Journal —

373 If the time were my own and the whole day like the early morning this journal would not consist of sentences.

On such a day the poet sets out, eager for work and song — ‘I sing/ the poem percussive/ closing the distance’ (166), ‘I sing the body/ eclectic uh defective’ (74), exuberant and playful ‘o euphony you/ phony you’ (27), time is a promise, a line (music? poem?) joyfully encountered  - ‘ding dong/ ding hark thrush/ music day break/ & no flooding’ (33). This is a happy man, rejoicing in that which makes our lives a joy — other humans, their wonderful works, even mistakes have their place, opening again into the good fortune of errata — games of substitutions and associations— ‘emily to susan/ avalanche to avenue’ (3) and the extended play of 84 ‘slow to slogan/ voracious to/ veracity’ which culminates in the assured serenity of ‘& I wake up/ next to you’. Lazer celebrates equally work and play — ‘toujours travailler’ (74) indeed it can be difficult to disentangle the two, each bound up with a sense of creation, of holiness -

verbal amulets

charm the morning

time be friend

the elements sing

love the light

phrase fades away

think into this blue

ink inches over

white intimates con

versing a laboratory

— 183

Yet the happiness so evident in this poetry is grounded in an awareness of this ‘appalling age’ (4) — ‘something/ very bad/ is about/ to happen’ (47), it’s not clear in this instance whether the’something very bad’ is occurring on a personal or broader level. Certainly Lazer writes about sickness and mortality but there also intimations of something going wrong in the wider world — ‘this/ world as it is/ a grave dis/ appointment’ (207) and it’s clearly not just our appointment with the grave that’s the source of those concerns about American society that surface intermittently throughout.

wars kept from view

new products debut

requiring more& more

memory though we

as a people have


— 196

The abdication of memory runs in tandem with a manipulated appetite for the new, ‘make it new’ transforming into ‘MARKET NEW’ (210) yet Lazer himself is constantly making new the language with his playful alignments and assonances, wild puns, and ‘tactical erasures’ (44). The difference is the poet has not abandoned memory, drawing rich and constant from the past, which makes for a real sense of newness. The ‘jitter of innovation’ occurring without context is but novelty and leads to no ‘sudden veracities’ (28), the light of which dances from poem to poem. Even the poet marvels at it, doubting his own doubts -  ‘either i’m as/ far away from the/ sacred as i’ve/ ever been or it’s/ popping up here all/ the time in/ words’ (14)
     I mentioned earlier the use of movement in the outward and inward exploration of language and experience but, in a work imbued with musical references, this is just one way in which movement is invoked. I also referred to the passage of days and the sense of movement thus conveyed and this is where Lazer plays with both movement and time. In (78) Lazer writes of making ‘in words/ another kind of time’ and the poems variously enact our skewered sense of time passing, some ripping along on a single breath while others slow to allow the reader to ‘examine... reflect/ in these pools’ (181).
     Movement is also spatial and cerebral — more play as Lazer uses space, corrections, position and meaning to strike off in all directions. Temporary connections are made, fuse, split, then ‘each off again’. (224) Movement is the ‘pulse/ processional wonder/ galvanic’ (198) of creation and yet it also, like a minor theme or refrain, sounds in the ‘nationally tragic habit’, the ‘insidious erasure’ of ‘beginning over & over’ (229), a habit that becomes yet more painful in the resonating ‘you move along now’ (231), even terser in 232 ‘move it along bud’ and yet these lines can also be read humourously, affectionately. Which way to go — ‘the paths/ the mind travels’ (223) are many and diverse — Days lights up the ways.

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