Book Review Archives

Portions

By: Hank Lazer
Reviewed by: Sue B. Walker
Lavender Ink Press, 2009
$10, Paper

Hank Lazer’s fifteenth book of poetry, Portions, is a “language house a / moving place that / feeds & carries,” a linguistic portioning that addresses how it is “to be”; it is “a way / to see out / to learn of / the world we / miraculous stand upon” (“House,” “Nature”). The book is an “invitation into a / new way of / saying (“Invitation”) that is in keeping with Heidegger’s claim that “language is the house of Being” (On The Way To Language). Portions is a “secret & saving / way through the / world in a thin book” (“Way”).

Lazer’s essay “On the Singularity of a Repeated Form” (included in the book) provides a way into the masterful linguistic intertwinings that constitute the text of Portions. Lazer explains that the portion of Torah read on a particular Sabbath opens with a distinguishing word. The titles of each of Lazer’s poems are portions that serve as guidewords on the way to discovering how it is to be who and what we are as beings and how we live in this world today.

The “how to live” is revealed through form or what we might call Lazer’s technique. He explains that each poem consists of eighteen lines, the number “being a mystical Jewish number.” Each line consists of three words, so that each poem is constructed of fifty-four words. For the overall book, Lazer says he “assembled the poem in eighteens: 18 poems in the first section (Early), 36 poems in the second section (four suites of nine poems each in Middle), and 18 poems in the final section (End).” This intelligent and engaging linguistic rendering is itself a creation. Portions is about poem-making or “poeming.” Lazer’s poeming, with its gerundial sense of ritual, lived reality, and continuance, constructs, indeed builds out of words a dwelling place, a shekinah whereby the visible majesty of the Divine Presence is ever and always revealed. Lazer, not unlike the late James Dickey in Sorties, makes manifest “not so much a way of understanding the world but a perpetually exciting way of recreating it from its own parts, as though God—who admittedly did it right the first time—had by no means exhausted the possibilities.” The line breaks, the use of blank spaces, the lack of capitalization constitute [text]ual being as well as human Being in the word-worlding [in]dwelling of Portions.

Lazer says in “Blank”: 

        the words begin 
        as proper designations 
        to leave me 

        when to cleave 
        means to cling 
        to or cut 

        through as they 
        had conjectured i 
        am become quite 

        blank am built 
        & feel it 
        happen upon a 

        blank event place 
        image [. . .]


Lazer spent from May 29, 2001, to September 2006 constructing Portions, a work that provides “new ways of writing and a sense of freshness in the act of composition.” Although his work impresses the reader with its spiritual essence and verity, his wit and absolute joie de vivre bring a concomitant realization that while there may be “car bombs booby / traps nightmares until / wreckage touches everywhere,” there is also “the smiling phrase about “what cheney & / the boys are / saying” (“W”), and the satisfying small measuring moments when a son reads “shaq talks back” and “jane [is] reading seabuiscuit,” and when words reconstitute life: 

        father of darkness 
        father in darkness 
        father gone over 

        into darkness father 
        & father [. . .]

We “come to these / words” with and through the poet’s poeming, and we find that “they feed us” and are the “living body” of language that sustains us: “winter star light / wind & darkness” transforming and transformed by light (“Father”). It is not only Lazer’s exquisite artistry that sets him apart, it is his kindness that, as Sophocles’ Ajax says, “ever calls forth kindness.” This quality of being is too often lacking in the poetry world today.

Hank Lazer is Associate Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of Alabama. His work has been nominated for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and the 2004 Forward Prize. He is the recipient of the 2003 Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry from the Virginia Quarterly ReviewFeb 2010

Sue B. Walker is Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama and Poet Laureate of Alabama.