Book review

'And the time is': The sonorous voice of poet Samuel Hazo, 1958 to 2013

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Long before I knew the man’s poetry, Samuel Hazo was a voice. Working at Jay’s Bookstall in Oakland, I was accustomed to picking up the phone and hearing voices that were instantly recognizable — Mister Rogers, Rick Sebak, Patti Burns. Samuel Hazo, who at the time was the director of the International Poetry Forum, had a voice every bit as distinctive as those local luminaries.

POEMS 1958-2013”
By Samuel Hazo
Syracuse University Press ($29.95)

Rich and sonorous with an implicit dignity and seriousness of purpose. That was Sam Hazo, the voice. Voice is one of those ephemeral qualities used when discussing poetry. Does the poet have a unique voice? Is the poet’s voice mature? Much like good art it is hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

Whether it is the barbaric yawp of Walt Whitman or Arthur Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses, the reader can spot a fully formed poetic voice from a hundred yards away.

The publication of “And the time is: Poems 1958-2013” offers the reader a ringside seat to the development of Samuel Hazo’s poetic voice. Arranged chronologically, for the most part, the collection presents a narrative in which the poet evolves from the precocious alliteration of “My Roosevelt Coupe,” — “Coax it, clutch it, kick it...Then off it bucked, / backfiring down the block” to the comparatively unadorned, though no less impish, directness of:

Victors annoy me.
They overdo
their victories with too much puffery.
I’m more inclined to share
the universal lot of losers,
not out of sympathy but frankly
in the name of candor.
— “As a Rule”

One of the pleasures of reading this generous collection of Mr. Hazo’s work is watching the poetic voice on the page grow and mellow, eventually coalescing with that darkly hued baritone I remember from my days at the bookshop.

By Samuel Hazo
TriQuarterly Books $16.95

We are also privy to the development of recurring themes — family, art and performance, the passage of time. And perhaps most notably the high personal and national cost of war. The reader feels Mr. Hazo’s anger and frustration as sharply as a punch to the gut, but the poet never boils over into shrill hyperbole. The impotence of art to impact endless wars and the poet’s disappointment with his country’s course of action is palpable in the opening lines of “Parting Shot:”

Nothing symphonic will come of this,
nothing of consequence, and nothing
to silence those whose business
is creating funerals where widows
in their twenties carry folded flags
to empty bedrooms.

Despair and exhaustion compete with fury in these poems. Even a brief reprieve from news of the war appears less as a moment of respite than one of self-lacerating anguish:

for once we’re spared the names
of occupying soldiers shot
or rocketed to fragments in Iraq.
— “For Which It Stands”

There is an ongoing conversation in these pages between the poet and the forces of history and culture. Iconic figures such as Benny Goodman, Joe DiMaggio and Michael Jackson rub shoulders with Montaigne and Pindar. Mr. Hazo’s love of the golden age of Hollywood is present in some of the most effervescent poems in the collection.

This pairing of so-called high and low culture should strike a chord with anyone familiar with the readings organized by the International Poetry Forum, which often enlisted famous actors, Gregory Peck and Eva Marie Saint to name a couple, to give voice to the work of poets such as William Butler Yeats.

That same enchantment with old Hollywood is very much at the heart of Mr. Hazo’s newest collection of poems “Sexes: The Marriage Dialogues.” As the title implies these are poems made up entirely of conversations among married couples.

A lighthearted examination of the dynamics between the sexes these poems exist in a kind of permanent Rock Hudson / Doris Day matinee. Some readers may find lines such as these from “Simon Says” quaint:

He said, “The angles of our house
remind me of solid geometry.”
“Forget geometry,” she scoffed,
I’ll take the lawn and the roses.”

But some may find the gender politics on display in these pages hopelessly outdated and tin-eared. Lacking the spikiness of, say, a Hepburn and Tracy tete-a-tete, the poems never rise above a tepid self-satisfaction. In these pages women cry and emote while the men are all about common sense and ready for sex at the drop of a well-worn fedora.

Unfortunately, the nuanced presentation of human relationships that grounds much of “And the time is: Poems 1958-2013” is absent from these newer poems. In its place we have easy jokes that may give a chuckle or two, but for the most part, “Sexes: The Marriage Dialogues” isn’t as satisfying.

Kristofer Collins is the book editor at Pittsburgh Magazine.

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