The basic problem in regard to poetry in the last few months is simply how. How does one address the complexities of the situation, how does one respond personally, socially, politically—if one is inclined to do so at all. The world’s urgencies press upon poets as they do upon all artists. Many poets think of their work as a form of political engagement. Many understand what they do in terms of the self, but the self as an instance of some larger group identity. The degree to which the virus has challenged artists in the totality of their being, starting with their physical being and extending far beyond, is, again incalculable. If poets are to write about the current situation (which, especially given the politics of the pandemic, is in constant flux), will their repertoire of techniques, their modes of discourse, prove up to the task? To put it bluntly, are we going to be faced with a lot of bad Covid19 poetry?
Happily, my first serious encounter with pandemic poetry has been deeply gratifying. Consoling, thoughtful, quiet but passionate, Covid19 Sutras is a work by a poet at the height of his powers. Hank Lazer has published numerous books of poetry and literary criticism in a career that spans over forty years. Closely connected to various experimental trends in American poetry (with Charles Bernstein, he edits the Modern and Contemporary Poetics series for the University of Alabama Press), his work has also engaged various spiritual traditions, particularly Judaism and Zen Buddhism, which intertwine beautifully in a number of his books. A Buddhist worldview and meditation practice informs Covid19 Sutras throughout. A sutra is a scripture in the form of a set of aphorisms, and while the poems in Lazer’s book are not altogether aphoristic, most have the brevity and self-contained wisdom (and ambiguity) that one associates with such writing. All of the poems consist of three quatrains, most of them using a short, highly enjambed line, with the stanzas spaced across the page. A few are written in a much longer line with a flush left margin; these tend to be more polemical, even using quotes from media sources. Overall, these are poems that are open to the world around the poet; they are poems of mindfulness, care, and compassion, even when the poet’s fury at political corruption and ineptitude is front and center (whenever Trump appears, he is simply called “the Liar”).
There are five sutras in the volume, presented chronologically: “early days,” “flattening the curve,” “phased reopening,” “we’re back?” and “I can’t breathe.” Following our recent history, Lazer implies that this is an open-ended series, a chronicle of self and nation. But he wisely eschews the epic mode for the condensed lyric imagism one associates with Japanese poetry. There is even the feeling of a Zen koan in some of the some of the poems, and it is worth noting that Lazer recently took lay ordination (jukai), and has studied with the poet and Zen priest Norman Fischer. Hence the calm and meditative attitude of the student sitting zazen:
is open you
can take what
you want - no
you can take
what you need
you may learn
to receive what
is already yours
here is the bell sound
to awaken you (20)
What is already ours? For Lazer, the answer lies in the world around us, in our immediate experience, and in the poet’s precise recording. In this respect, Lazer is very much an heir to the Objectivists. The first lines of the first sutra read “books & blossoms / spring & all / cold morning...,” a tip of the hat to William Carlos Williams, and there are passages that sound as much like Robert Creeley, Williams’ disciple, as they do Ryokan or Bashō:
& a view
of the pasture
this changing light (38)
Surely there has been no time in most of our lives when the certainty of our disappearance, of entering into the light, has loomed larger. We reflect upon it more often than in the days before the pandemic. Lazer’s poems are remarkable in their exploration of this existential truth; again and again, they imply depths while hovering over the surfaces:
cause of death?
birth nor death
at the birdfeeder
grass filling in
to bloom (58)
The fact of our death is made all the harder given the nation’s, and the nation’s leadership’s failure to deal effectively with this immensely complex threat. Poetry reminds us of this, calling upon us to act in the face of such circumstances, not in the way of political speech (though a poem may overlap with political discourse), but in a way that may bring together the conditions of the individual psyche with those of the body politic:
Infection count, death count, caught in a time delay.
Death of logic, death of rationality, science becomes
something to believe or not.
Once that verb gets introduced, science finds itself cast
into a space where it perishes.
The future has contracted into now & the next few months.
Pileated woodpecker pounds the railing of the deck.
Whoever told you that observing your mind was easy?
I can’t live like this all the time. (74)
None of us can, even the Zen master (or the analysand who has successfully terminated his analysis). Nor would we want to; our spontaneity would be lost, and that, I think, is one of the reasons that Lazer continually returns to his observations of the natural world. Thus he wisely observes, in the poem immediately following,
extracted from daily
reality so don’t
expect it in a
of overlapping bird
calls traffic & human
activity mix with
wind through trees
who would seize
on one thing
over another (75)
There is a dark truth in these lines, but I also find them consoling: the complexity and ambiguity of both daily reality and poetry resist meaning, though I would have to say (here I am probably revealing my ineluctably Western ways of thinking) that I like to consider the poem a search for meaning, even if meaning itself is rarely found.
And I think there are moments when Lazer agrees. From the fifth sutra, “I can’t breathe”:
wish to burn down.
A sentence makes a declaration, of independence, of confinement, or death,
but once it gets started it must say something.
If you are thinking “what pandemic, what virus?” simply because you are eating
a plate of sautéed garbanzo beans, rainbow chard, shaved parmesan, cilantro, & fresh linguine,
& a crisp white wine, in this moment you are very right
and very wrong.
Too many qualifiers, too many if’s and but’s: let’s cut to the chase.
Yes, let’s — we are faced continually today with lies, with fake news, with manipulated or fabricated representations of events, but also with endlessly ambiguities in regard to the events which have happened, which are real. For some of us, living in relatively isolated comfort, we can say “what pandemic,” at least when enjoying life’s simple pleasures. Lazer understands this (I want that linguine recipe!), but he also understands that as soon as we consider the complexities of the sentence-the declarative sentence, the sentence of imprisonment, the death sentence which all of us face, but some more directly than others-we are overwhelmed by “too many qualifiers.” Then there is the brutal directness of “I can’t breathe.”
Covid19 Sutras ends with this poem:
equality justice democracy
mark something other
than our shame
pain goes straight
to our emptiness
repeated videos enshrine
the victims what to do
with two viruses
death of a nation
blurred as i age
into what’s next
As the crises blur together and the poet ages, the abstract words we have heard all our lives urgently need to be reclaimed and reclarified. Clarifying the language has always been one of the poet’s great tasks. In Covid19 Sutras, Hank Lazer sets us on the right path.