Tackling science and religion, government and family, Lentz ably covers the waterfront in this perceptive volume of collected verse.
Because Lentz’s new book opens up with a poetic kaddish (a Jewish funeral liturgy) for his father, Rex, it’s awfully hard not to compare him—favorably, one might add—to Allen Ginsberg, whose own epic “Kaddish” memorialized his mother, Naomi. The godfather of the Beats compressed his mother’s biography into a few short strokes; by contrast, Lentz gets expansive when addressing his father’s life story: “the small boy he was took crap and drove mules. / he helped his mother clean movie theaters. / he had close friends. / he learned the secrets of his trade. / cutting metal, a craft that men at war could use in the Philippines, / he could make you a bulldozer part from a chunk of steel.” So while Naomi is tragic, shrinking, Rex is a John Henry–esque mythic hero. Yet if Lentz’s tone in “Saying Kaddish for Rex Albert” is one of nonironic lionization, the feel of the rest of his poetry is subtler, more likely to murmur than shout. Take, for instance, the fleeting, beautiful “Autumnal Dreamscape”: “rotation and tilt produce / a population with the ability to cope / each season is a step on a ladder to / the next as we try to steady our grasp / holding on for dear life to a / planet surface infatuated with change.” Along with such philosophical reflections come other insightful pieces on politics, rites of passage, technology and family. Yet given the book’s title—presumably a reference to the traditional Jewish prayer shawl—there is less orthodox religion than one would expect. In “Abandoned by the Gods,” Lentz writes, “today as I reached out to / the ineffable nothing much happened / that risible connection / did not cause the familiar shiver.” If Lentz is more likely to wrestle with the deity than to laud him, so much the better. It’s a venerable Jewish tradition.
A wide-ranging collection of verse from a sure-handed, cleareyed poet.