The spiritual materials of Hank Lazer and giovanni singleton
Hank Lazer’s most recent collection, N18 (complete), and giovanni singleton’s first collection of poetry, Ascension, deploy similar formal strategies to remind us of an old truth: the bone of spirit means just that, the inseparability of the spiritual from the material. Lazer uses handwritten shapewriting as a kind of “first tool” to meditate on song, knowledge, and being in relation to the quest for transcendence embodied in his ongoing projects. singleton frames her more normative meditative lyricism with shapewritten (non-standard) typographical differences. Moreover, singleton’s book title, an allusion to a John Coltrane composition, might very well describe the strategic turns and twists of N18 as a kind of Nocturnes 18 — serpentine handwriting as night music (and an allusion to the name of the poetry journal singleton edits) that points toward what hovers “above” or “beyond” while Days, a previous Lazer book, could serve as the alternate title of “Eye of the Behearer,” a section of singelton’s book composed in honor of the forty-nine day passage of Alice Coltrane’s soul into eternity. In citing an earlier Lazer publication as well as singleton’s magazine Nocturnes, I am suggesting that the paths of these two poets have long been intertwined even if they do not know it (or each other’s work). I refer here not to their metaphysical ruminations — we could cite everyone from Nathaniel Mackey to Elizabeth Robinson, Noah Eli Gordon to Fanny Howe, on that score — but rather to the specific procedural methods both poets deploy as gestures toward the ineffable.
N18 (complete) is the latest incarnation of Hank Lazer’s work as a series of Benjaminesque dreambooks: allusions to, and quotations from, Levinas, Heidegger, et al. dominate the text (qualitatively if not quantitatively). The Nietzschean-Heideggerean subtexts offset each other rather well, the former’s humor and hubris compensating for the latter’s solemnity, though as absorbed and refigured through Lazer’s writing, these serpentine citations still make for some fairly “serious” reading. On the other hand, the spare, fierce lyricism of Ascension, harmonizing with the late music of Coltrane, has the effect of the epigram and aphorism, though without the despair underlying, say, Pascal. As for “content,” the differences are stark enough. The cultural contexts of singleton’s work — in general, what do “we” do in the wake (in every sense of the word) of the Black Arts Movement and its “political” wing, the radical Black Power movement — grounds her work in a specific culture and epoch even as it attempts, ambivalently, to go beyond the last century’s very real social and political possibilities, however much compromised, internally, by sloganeering and posturing. By comparison, as its apotheosis of shapewriting implies, N18 is both more iconoclastic and “universal” inasmuch as the Big Topics — “the downpour of holiness goes by the name each instant is miraculous the …” (21) — processed through Oulipo proceduralism, explicitly inform its trajectory. Still, each book, in its own way, seems to presuppose an impasse — spiritual and political, metaphysical and materialistic — that is both specific to our epoch and, possibly, a general condition of human existence. In that sense, as Elizabeth Robinson notes in her Rain Taxi review of singleton’s book, Ascension must be understood, pace its title, as a refusal of verticality and its hierarchical implications.
In that spirit, Ascension opens with a mandala entitled “The Odds,” essentially a spiraling series of hedged bets — “read the leaves roll the dice shuffle the cards lay the runes write some poems and pray pray pray” (3) — and closes in “silence” with “Eye of the Be/Holder,” an abbreviated journey toward (Buddhist) self-abnegation (the three movements of the poem are “I,” “I,” and “.”), that “final” period a nano-mandala purified of language. Between “The Odds” and “Eye of the Be/Holder” three serial poems challenge verticality even though they, as more or less normative poems written in English, invite left-right, top-bottom, reading practices. “Eye of the Behearer” and “Melanin Suite,” comprised, respectively, of forty-nine and nine movements, link the bardo of Alice Coltrane’s soul to the dialectics of negrophobia (e.g., Jim Crow) and negrophilia (e.g., the Black Arts Movement). Singleton imagines this “argument” regarding the “negro” transcended by the spiritual flights in “Exodus” (“this earthen soul, a flock / of birds // where we are new / we are new / we are new to this body”) (62), a poem situated between “Eye of the Behearer” and “Melanin Suite.” The thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure, traditionally represented by the pyramid (replicated in “Day 45” of “Eye of the Behearer” as a triangle comprised of the repeated sentence “The World Is Round” — thematizing the mandala — and punctuated at its heart by the tag “Ain’t it”), is echoed by the last poem in “Melanin Suite,” an acrostic tribute to ecumenism that spells out Alice Coltrane’s name, the first letter of which represents both pyramid and triangle: “vedAntic / tempLe prayers / tambourInes and / hallelujah Claps for/Krishna, GanEsha, Shiva” (75). Unlike the normative wordprocessed fonts of the bulk of “Eye of the Behearer” and “Melanin Suite,” both “Exodus” and the acrostic are reprints of pages typed on a “broken” typewriter (the right column of “Exodus” is a handwritten series of Greek letters). These typographical irregularities mimic handwriting, suggesting that, for singleton, the “moments” of transcendence can only appear, from the perspective of the world, as apotheoses of iconoclasm.
In N18, Lazer accepts the apotheosis of iconoclasm, of handwritten shapewriting. In our historical moment, such a gesture can be understood as both pre-and post-conceptual, pre- and post-flarf, even though it approaches the former’s solemnity more than it does the latter’s humor. The tension Lazer enacts here is largely (though not only) formal: a personal hand writing its way through largely Western philosophical and theological arguments, ideas and values. Though Lazer’s “own” thoughts are given more than their due here, neither his ideas nor his procedures reverse the text-marginalia relationship; rather, N18 emphasizes the ideational (rather than the sensory) level of citation in general. The centrality of the a priori text — here, as direct quotations — and its authoritative potency is only partially mitigated by Lazer’s handwritten shapewriting since his ideas bear the traces of his predecessors. For example, the page dated 10/16/10 is comprised of two quotations in the shape of mandalas linked by two lines of “original” writing: “pay attention pay attention to what / what exactly it is that calls us into attention.” Echoing singleton’s “pray pray pray,” this page of writing has the shape of a quarter note, not the first or last time Lazer (like singleton) links the possibility of transcendence to music (cf. Days). Despite their mutual valorization of the uppermost limits, the Heideggerean-Levinasean undertones in N18 pigeonhole Lazer as the prototypical scholar-academic poet. Of course, to put it that way only reinscribes what N18 (as well as some of Lazer’s previous books) is at pains to dispel: the Romantic notion of originality as the aesthetic value par excellence of poetry. Indeed, what marks Lazer’s writing is its insistence on playing with the tradition, somewhat along the lines of jazz improvisations of popular tunes: “on the bridge to sing with the sound of what passes by / this way / his way / the play // of sway machinery” (37). In that sense, Lazer’s handwritten shapewriting is not teleological or, if it is, if it does tend toward the answer or the truth, it insists on dancing down the many roads already traveled. That traditional, if ecumenical, impulse also links N18 to Ascension. Still, if N18 is more scholarly, more academic, than Ascension, Lazer’s apparent aversion to titles — the book is one long poem — and narrative makes it even more serial, more radical, than the poems that comprise singleton’s book. Or does it? After all, a few of the pages of N18 are dated. At any rate, Lazer’s writing, largely shorn of the lyricism that informs Ascension, can be read as a critical “commentary” on singleton’s work. And need I add that Ascension can be understood as marking the limits of the sweeping grandeur that shadows N18?
1. Do dates of composition function as titles? Put another way, does the shift from thematic or structural markers — the usual function of titles — to temporal ones reduce the normal stop-and-go reading process? Is the difference between a title of letters and one of numbers merely the difference between red stop and yellow slow down signs? And in the context of reading practices in our age, what is the significance of the fact that Ascension asks us to occasionally “stop” while N18 (complete) “merely” asks us to slow down?