Long Island Books: Darkness and Light

Two very different collections of poems

By Dan Giancola
    Two recently published poetry books by East Hampton Town residents merit the attention of serious poets and casual readers alike. Naomi Lazard’s “Ordinances,” winner of the 2010 ReBound Prize (Seven Kitchens Press, $7), and Fran Castan’s “Venice: City That Paints Itself” (Canio’s Editions, $30, with paintings by her husband, Lewis Zacks) should find their way into the collection of any poetry lover.
    Ms. Lazard’s chapbook is of interest primarily because of her rendering of voice. The persona of these poems appears to be an anonymous author on a government or institutional payroll. The employee’s voice is rigidly depersonalized and never questions the commands articulated for readers. The voice brims with certainty and confidence; it is the voice arising from the arrogance of power that denies responsibility for its orders and actions, the voice that can acknowledge no wrong on its own part.
    You might recognize it. It seems a conflation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Hal, Jose Saramago’s canned government instructions in “Blindness,” and W.H. Auden’s epitaph author in “The Unknown Citizen.” This public relations voice is intelligent but devoid of humanity. The carefully crafted tone of the poems, therefore, is one of sinister banality, of malevolent benevolence:

It is not our responsibility
that you don’t like your co-workers
and they don’t like you.
Nobody is here to be liked.
You must do the best you can
under the circumstances.
We try to make them better for you.
(“Ordinance on Employment”)

    Or:

Instead of the item you ordered
we are sending you something else.
It is not the same thing,
nor is it a reasonable facsimile.
It is what we have in stock,
the very best we can offer.
(“In Answer to Your Query”)

    In both examples the patriarchal voice attempts to console, but this consolation is chilling rather than cheering. The voice insists it knows better than you what is good for you. It is a voice, unfortunately, too often heard today in those institutions that seek to inform and control, that present choices where none really exist, that seem to offer freedom while enslaving us. This is the voice of modern bureaucracy that has infiltrated our daily lives.
    A book of 80 pages of poems written in this voice would have been too much. But in this chapbook of 19 poems in 26 pages, Ms. Lazard provides just enough of it to remind us that an authority’s power can be both surreal and infantilizing.
    These “Ordinances” are too ominous to be beautiful. But they are wise and useful. We need these poems today, perhaps more so than when they were last published, in that Orwellian year of 1984.
    On the other hand, Fran Castan’s lyric poems in “Venice” focus on time’s continuity and circularity reflected in canals, caught in the resounding notes of a gondolier’s song. Light and water infuse these poems and act as a form of imagination, transforming what they touch. These poems discover eternity in Venice, a timelessness that reminds us of our own mortality but salves that knowledge with the promise of immortality flickering in the scintillating light that bathes the water and washes Venetian facades.
    The past is omnipresent in these poems. The figures of Il Tintoretto, Puccini and Pavarotti, Chopin and Vivaldi, and the poet’s ancestors are muses for Ms. Castan’s meditations. For example, after seeing a rat on a stairway, the speaker of “Transients” says, “I scale the steps two at a time, / The way ancestors must have leapt over nests of rats / And I laugh to think I am urged on / By instinctive wisdom they bequeathed me / In this body they cradled into being — vibrant body / They made over thousands of years —”
    Here the ages are diminished; time vanishes as past and present are connected in the poem’s persona.
    This happens again in “The Composition of Paint.” The artists of the past, poisoned by the elements comprising their paints, are imagined returning, “Each cell . . . / will rise again as a gem / Painted back into light / Traveling now to the future / Hand of a new master.”
    Many of Ms. Castan’s images are startlingly fresh and limpid. A heel is described as “shaped like the doge’s hat,” a shadow is thrown “like black net stockings,” and breath, entering a chest, “plays the intercostals like an accordion.” This collection brims with effective figures such as these, and Ms. Castan creates a lovely, soothing music to carry them along, particularly in lines such as these that begin “Soliloquy on a Quay of the Zattere”:

Water laps the pilings,
A breeze luffs the umbrella,
An orange butterfly alights
On a cup of steamed milk

Alluring as a peony.

    The music of this collection never jangles or seems other than perfectly pitched.
    “Venice: City That Paints Itself,” it must be noted, is a gorgeous edition, and the paintings by Lewis Zacks are beautifully reproduced. The poems and paintings wonderfully complement one another. Together, they capture the waters of Venice swollen with impressionistic lights and remind us that the past is always here with us now.

    Naomi Lazard has had poems published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Paris Review. She is a co-founder of the Hamptons International Film Festival.
    Fran Castan is the author of “The Widow’s Quilt.” Her work has appeared in Poetry and Ms. magazine.
    Dan Giancola’s volumes of poems include “Part Mirth, Part Murder.” A professor of English at Suffolk Community College, he lives in Mastic.