The New Spirit
by Hank Lazer
Available through Small Press Distribution.
Consider these lines from T. S. Eliot’s "Ash Wednesday":
In Hank Lazer’s beautiful, and beautifully presented, new book The New Spirit, we find Lazer in a similar condition as that of Eliot, yet his construction of "Something upon which to rejoice" is precisely a turning. And it is not the bleak turning of the consumed body that occurs later in Eliot’s "Ash Wednesday" but a turning toward, a re-turning, a kind of re-pentance. One of the sections of the book is entitled "Teshuvah: Heading South" and another section "Leaning Toward." So we have in The New Spirit not a rejuvenation of dry bones but a rebirth, or rather, in this case, an organic turning toward the spiritual, what Lazer, after Roethke, has called an "interior journey." In contrast to Eliot’s lines consider these closing lines from Roethke’s "The Waking":
The point though is that in poetry, and specifically in Hank Lazer’s poetry of recent years, the poet comes face to face with his maker (or unmaker, as the case may be) and produces work from the tension that arises from that confrontation. In The New Spirit Lazer has created a kind of contemporary prayer book that offers with great ingenuity and skill a possible turning toward in which we might affirm what is and come through it more joyous than despondent.
Lazer has thoroughly read Poe, Thoreau, Dickinson, Emerson, as well as the 20th century modernists, objectivists, and so on, so he is firmly rooted in the American poetic soil, and its spirit. And one finds hints of these throughout The New Spirit, but what is most evident is that Lazer is in the process of arriving at a state of constant renewal. Compare these opening lines of "Prayer", the first section of The New Spirit, to that of both Eliot and Roethke above:
In the pure, unformed, the void, as Genesis tells us, creation begins. And so this poet has begun in the openness of his heart which contains a fire, the lamp of his song. However, the Hebrew word translated as "scintillation" can also be translated as "darkness." How does darkness scintillate? Perhaps the poetic act itself is the answer. The poet begins in the darkness of his imagination, or at last petitions that darkness for a word, for an image, he imposes, by way of his prayer, into the domain of the gods. It is a "quiet threat/ to gods gathered." It is an act that moves the spiritual from pure observance, habit and tradition, to action, and by its bold imposition, places the entire event in an "odd margin" of human experience. And so this poet begins his prayer, utterly open and self-consciously creating in that odd margin. Or as Lazer’s poetry can often be both playful and sourced in previous writing, it is also re-creating.
As Lazer says in an email correspondence:
Here is identity in breakdown. Beginning perhaps from the heart—the romantic notions of poet as individual lone against the world. But we return (again we are turning, continue to turn, Teshuvah) to the underworld, and song in the underworld, "Orpheus" at the end of a beautiful lashing of consonants. "Orpheus / scattered." Then, with everything broken, in the wake of this shattering of identity it is "no more than a postmodern" and, significantly, followed by "did you say / post mortem." This is precisely where The New Spirit lands us—in the post mortem of the postmodern rage fading beyond its own status as a movement and becoming art history. We are left with a broader space. The New Spirit does not have to be avant-garde/experimental. It may be those things, but that is not Lazer’s priority. Instead, it is more important now to move according to impulses that are secure in their own right: "adventuring your cause / he / sings it & he writes it & he draws it / draws out the thread given to him." What thread and from where or whom? It does not matter. This prayer is a motion, an embrace of change. Not an unfolding toward a specific end, but breath itself. The "yah weh yah weh" at the closing of section one of "Prayer" is transformed from deification to the simple act of animal exhalation out into the world as in the opening lines of section two "you in fact not of your own making." Identity/self at any given moment is being made and unmade by will, by environment, by continuing to breathe. Lazer breaks from himself, and from the world. He is not "constructing something upon which to rejoice" nor is he deconstructing himself or some previous idea. As the poem progresses it evades this tendency toward modeling or formalizing or even toward the tendency to be anything at all beyond what is happening: "too logopoeia," he says, "please retune weird word."
It would also be remiss to review Lazer’s work without mentioning the word-play, reminiscent first of Stein, but in lines like these: "turn this world / a grave a way/ engrave the way" also of Roethke again as he matured toward nature’s embrace of death as any other organic and therefore spiritual activity, or as Lazer puts it, closing his "Prayer," "enabled by shaping breath to turn."
"Invocation," the second long poem/section of The New Spirit, begins perhaps to arrive at the heat and heart of its moment by returning to a subject in Lazer’s previous book Elegies & Vacations, the death of his father:
As this unforgettable moment continues to haunt him we notice how one breath "continues to obliterate all others." In this constant assault of obliteration we never truly contain the moment because its very arrival is a death. So, as Lazer asks "where are you" he is also asking how is it that we are anywhere. How is it that being and presence coincide? How, and to what extent, are they one and the same? To what degree do we differentiate the two and what does that distinction mean in actuality? Lazer seems to answer these questions by unfolding the interior condition even further by inwardly vocalizing—the voice tuned inward by, then out again through the medium of the poem:
These clarifications, this sense of holding knowledge, are as essential as breathing and just as ephemeral as a breath. To attempt to contain it would only destroy its immediate clarity. It becomes, as the poem continues, "a surface upon which to imagine." Again, he is not constructing, or deconstructing by becoming "too logopoeia," but, instead, allowing the process its presence and responding. But his response is not toward containing the experience, or acquiring knowledge and that kind of security, rather, it is a response with imagination. Experience ignites the imagination, which is now outside formalization, and those sparks are the poem itself. This experience is masterfully summarized, and brought into the everyday (thus making us aware again of its constant presence and undoing, turning and re-turning) a few pages later with the closing lines of part 5:
The Rabbi Eliyahu Touger has written of the concept and ceremony of Teshuvah:
In the section of The New Spirit entitled "Teshuvah: Heading South," we might keep these comments in mind. To repent, re-pent, is to turn around, change direction, but as Touger points out that is not the same thing as returning. Lazer’s teshuvah is more the "radical contrast that sheds light." Lazer in constantly turning and re-turning, is an exile from home, but only in the sense that home is itself in the never arriving; to drive homeward, exiled from home, but without an absolute resolution. Or as he writes of John Coltrane: "trane played just ahead of any sense he already understood." To understand is to constrain, formalize and ultimately become intoxicated with that formality. Antonin Artaud once said, "A clear idea is an idea that is dead and finished."
When we are resolved to our exile, perpetual, turning and re-turning in the vortex of the world we begin to attune to its once strange rhythms and are "at home" in this irresolution. We are losing our ability (or is it a flaw, a neurosis?) to rely on absolutes. This "loss" is not a destruction of the religious or spiritual, it is liberation. We have come to recognize that we are participants in the world, not the subjects of it. We are only bound by the limitations we impose upon ourselves or those imposed upon us. Therefore the spirit is always new. This is the very essence of spirit, otherwise it is a concept, a formality, a law that forces us from the garden. Spirit, then, being the essence of the authentically new, we find ourselves (and this poem is a wonderful example of the practice of it) always re-turning toward it and by that process co-creating it. No singular ONE is in control. Control is an illusion, an impossibility. We cannot even control our own sense of identity, but everyone is a participant in every event they encounter, and to some extent define the nature of that encounter. Lazer’s teshuvah works in this way. We turn toward it and by that action the poem is awake, it re-turns in its newness. We move outward and the poem meets us and sparks fly free in the un-bodied imagination:
It is this sound and vision of "bright hooves" striking the hardened ruts and routes of the mind that imagination frees us in all directions in all "seven elements." It is unlimited by time and space, the relics are refired. This is not nostalgia, but memory itself given its own body in this broader spatial context:
Here—in bold face—"rose memory problem chapel crying vibration." While rose memory reminds me of the poems Lazer has written about the rose garden of his childhood (and perhaps this is a personal key for him as well to his connection with Roethke, who grew up in his father’s green houses), but the key word here, ending the bold face is "vibration" as it is followed by "‘ led on by music’." We must remember that words are after all vibrations, they are, especially words in a poem, a kind of singing or chanting. The spirit takes voice. This is especially apparent when one hears Lazer perform the work. It is as if each word, or short phrase of words and vibrations are connected to make "chords" (sometimes consonant, sometimes dissonant). They are musical chords, but they are also word notes / word chords. They are, as we are seeing / hearing reverberations of mind played upon by any possible event in a day. They are the world striking at imagination.
Part 8 begins: "three little words" and remind us of the old show song, which I recall Fred Astaire singing in a movie. In that case the three little words are, as I remember, "I love you." And love comes into focus here, but in The New Spirit with its multi-foliate turns and juxtapositions three little words function as chains of three word lines / phrases. One particularly notices, this being a part of the book called teshuvah, is three word phrases in Hebrew. In particular "baruch atah / adonai" (Blessed are you, Lord our God) and in a line that opens us toward the full reach of the poem, its infinities:
Shma yisroel adonai translates, out of Deuteronomy 6:4, as "Hear O, Israel, the Lord our God is One." This would seem to fly in the face of the complex of identities and annihilation of identity that this poem is. However this is qualified by "gateway i’m here." It is through the singular focus of the poet that the multitude unfolds. Again, we are co-creators. The poet creates a multitude that opens out into the world.
Part 9 verifies this in its opening lines:
"this site"—The site of the poem, or more accurately the site of the poem singing in the mind’s ear that is the space of turning toward—renewal, resurrection and the unfolding activity that spirit is and is doing with us, in concert with us:
In his essay "On ‘Identity’" Roethke quotes one of his poems: "Am I but nothing, leaning toward a thing?" Lazer informs me that he did not take the title of the final section of The New Spirit from Roethke’s line, but even as Roethke himself once experienced the presence of Yeats after writing his poem "The Dance," Roethke, is one of the abiding presences of The New Spirit. Lazer does not imitate him, but it is as if the old master wanders around inside the poem, nudging the cadences here and there, dancing as it were, so that Lazer manages to be simultaneously, like Roethke often was, profound without losing his sense of play, of humor. Similarly, Lazer connects with the interior, formally the domain of metaphysics—and metaphysics is the way Roethke thought of it (albeit on his own terms)—but Lazer’s poem is again about moving us beyond the reliance on terminology with so much baggage that it can zealously be distorted to whatever shape one wishes. He is closer, philosophically, perhaps to Celan’s pursuit of the Real, to immediacy, when he writes:
Is it possible now to "talk about a journey to the interior" in other ways? Can’t we, as with this poetry, refuse to draw those boundaries so exclusively? Perhaps we can move in and through these distinctions at will because they are essentially abstractions. They are a means of possessing one’s self, of owning one’s being among all those others that do the same. But that structure of abstractions does not and cannot, contain an interior journey that falls out of the abyss of self and back into the world again. What Lazer is turning toward, leaning toward, is simultaneously disappearance (as in death, or some momentary experience that takes one out of oneself) and presence in which we know ourselves as individuals. Yet, the dead are also present with us, whether by memory, memento, or some "mystical" event. Many kinds of presence and absence are constant and simultaneous:
And having disappeared we are free to invention, re-creating, or rather to be re-created beyond the disappeared self. Then the rhythm of it sets in and the spiraling of experience ascends:
Eventually we must allow the perpetual wounding of these "threshold" experiences. Whether they be "losing oneself" in a book or a film—or something of which we are more consciously aware. There are the moments of immediacy in joy, ecstasy, or confronting death. The individual may in some sense retreat, but something remains engaged—the wound remains open and fresh:
lean into thinking
"everything i do is leaning toward
what we came for"
pain & pleasure
i see them cross over
We must, by the necessities of our biology, by our organic destiny, lean toward what we already are as we are living it:
Instead we are caught, always, in the movement. We lose ourselves and are the movement. I am where I am in such a way, and in such a moment, but this is like quantum physicists discovering and experimentally confirming that probability only becomes a particle when it is observed. Perhaps this commentary is cliché, but the question remains: can we "know" without holding on to that knowledge as a possession and therefore abstracting a new, removed, thing, out of the original? Is there a way for poetry to contain particulars without becoming the artifact, document, or distant record of those particulars? In The New Spirit Lazer suggests there is, by allowing presence without capturing it, by allowing the poem to be the site of activity, the event, not document, by:
the eratio bookshelf is edited by gregory vincent st. thomasino.