BooksWeekend

Poetry in the Time of a Pandemic

Hank Lazer’s COVID19 SUTRAS amounts to a diary of what it is to be alive in the midst of a pandemic and a growing demand for racial justice.

Hank Lazer, COVID19 SUTRAS (image courtesy Lavender Ink)

Between March 1 and June 13 of this year, Hank Lazer wrote a sequence of poems collectively titled COVID19 SUTRAS (Lavender Ink, 2020). The arrangement of this ongoing progression is divided into five sections: (early days); (flattening the curve); (phased reopening); (we’re back?); (“I can’t breathe”).

Each poem is 12 lines long, divided into three four-line stanzas, which are often staggered on the page, suggesting shifts in consciousness. The lines vary from short sentences (“upturned gold” is the first line of one sutra) to long, often taking from the news (a later sutra opens with, “People are protecting the governmental structures which the demonstrators wish to burn down”). What happens in the individual poems and over the course of this sequence far exceeds my description.

The word sutra, which comes from the Sanskrit “string or thread,” often refers to a series of aphorisms in the form of a manual or guide to daily life. What is it to be conscious? What is consciousness? What is it to be silent and aware of what is going on around you, from what can be seen to what the mind is thinking? These are the threads that run through COVID19 SUTRAS, as Lazer documents his commitment to remain open and porous to the world he inhabits, from what is directly around him to the news he receives through various devices.

The opening stanza of the sequence reads:

books & blossoms

spring & all

cold morning no

wind cloud bank

Within these four lines, Lazer compresses a lot of information. We are in a world of culture (“books”) and nature, specifically the first days of spring (“blossoms”). Aware of the pandemic that is about to sweep across America, Lazer is reminded of a poem, “Spring and All [By the road to the contagious hospital],” as well as the groundbreaking book Spring and All (1923), by William Carlos Williams.

A practicing physician nearly his entire life, Williams wrote the poem at the end of World War I, during the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people worldwide, including nearly 700,000 Americans. A “contagious hospital” was a facility that housed and treated patients with infectious diseases, like the Spanish flu, for which there was no known cure. You either survived or you didn’t.

Spring and All, which alternates between sections of prose and poetry, contains Williams’s most famous poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Rethinking it in light of Lazer’s sequence led me to realize that it could be read as a Buddhist aphorism about the nature of consciousness and the specificity of true perceptions:

so much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

besides the white

chickens

Lazer has all these perceptions on a “cold morning” with “no wind,” while looking at a “cloud bank,” a constantly changing form.

Informed by the poet’s practice of Zen Buddhism and daily meditation, Lazer inhabits a possibility in COVID19 SUTRAS that Williams first opened up in Spring and All and achieved a few years later when, in 1927, he wrote in an early version of his long poem Paterson: “No ideas but in things.” Lazer acknowledges Williams’s presence at outset of the sequence, but never announces it. The reader does not have to know this to read the poems, which amount to a diary of what it is to be alive in the midst of a pandemic and a growing demand for racial justice after a white Minneapolis police office knelt on the neck of George Floyd, a handcuffed Black man, killing him on May 25, 2020.

Being conscious of the constantly changing world, both near and far, means being alert to all the different ways time passes. During the first sequence, subtitled “[early days],” Lazer writes,

soldier    shoulder

slow    words    emanate

invasion

of the invisible

“burdens are from God

& shoulers also”

we are becoming

their host

a beautiful spring day

in the moment    nothing changes

in this instant     memory of the dead & dying

to see all things    as they are    disappearing

From his close attention to sound in the first line, Lazer pivots to his growing awareness that the pandemic is the “invasion/ of the invisible.” He then shifts to Zen Buddhist scripture followed by the realization that one’s body can be the unwitting host for the disease. Aware of all these different modes of perception, and tugs at one’s perceptions and consciousness, Lazer asks in the poem’s last line if one can stay conscious of time’s unrelenting pull:

to see all beings     as they are    disappearing

Mortality is never as far away from us as we would like to think. Living during the COVID-19 pandemic induces — at least in those of us who do not think of it as “fake news” — moments of hyperawareness that death could be in the very air that we breathe.

We inhabit a perilous condition that isolates each of us, even as we realize that we are not alone, and that everyone is collectively affected, whether they acknowledge it or not. If you are Black in America, you inhabit another life-threatening state that preceded the pandemic and shows every sign of continuing after the pandemic has passed.

At the same time, being a writer likely means that isolation is integral to your daily life, and the pandemic has heightened that state. What does it mean to be conscious of this state of things while not emphasizing your ego, the I? Can you step aside and become egoless, as Lazer does while calling up the American transcendentalist philosopher, essayist, and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the second stanza:

transparent      eyeball

i have no head

i never did

it all passes

Again, the reader need not know the reference and may only catch the humor.

Lazer goes from the particulars of seeing what is close to him to reading the daily news. He walks in the countryside with his three dogs. He watches a “male & female/cardinal at the bird/feeder” before he checks “the daily/death count.” In another sutra, he quotes in chronological order a series of Trump’s outlandish lies, ending with this response: “My ass, you stupid motherfucker. As if/a cloud came over me… .”  He knows in these poems that he is a witness:

with two viruses

death of a nation

blurred as I age

into what’s next

In another sutra, he writes:

i think

you are

on your way

& it pains me

that i

that no one

can be

with you

what you are

what you were

dissolving into the virus

at age 89

Lazer’s terseness conjures up the overwhelming power of grief and how it threatens to burst through everything.

COVID19 SUTRAS is full of tenderness, empathy, anger, despair, sadness — the ping-pong ball of feelings bouncing this way and that. Lazer, in his isolation, slows down all of this so he can examine these states of being, while attempting to understand consciousness and what it means to be alive and alert to this mutating, contagious world, yourself both within it and not.

COVID-19 SUTRAS by Hank Lazer (2020) is published by Lavender Ink and is available online and in bookstores.

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