rior to the 2005 publication of He Claims He Is the Direct Heir, Montreal poet Lazar Sarna had not released a collection for twenty-seven years. Not surprisingly, then, the poems in his new collection were written over a significant time span, with journal publication credits for some of the included poems dating back to the mid-nineties. What results from this extended fermentation process is a collection that in many ways resembles an author’s debut book. This is not a comment on Sarna’s craftsmanship, but instead on the variety of styles and forms he adopts throughout the collection. Like many first books, He Claims He Is the Direct Heir does not come across as one unified bloc of poems, but instead as a more scattered collection. This should not be seen entirely as a drawback, as it allows readers to experience the transformations that occurred in Sarna’s writing over the last decade.
The poems in Sarna’s new collection range from the stoically realistic to the swimmingly surreal. Some are presented using clear, precise words, while others are obscured behind a wizardry of language. Though a clear linear transition in Sarna’s poetry, from the realistic to the surreal (or vice-versa), is not evident in this collection, it is clear that over the years Sarna’s writing changed significantly. Consider, for instance, the opening lines of two of the finer pieces in He Claims He Is the Direct Heir. The first, “The Treasure,” originally published in 1997 (Antigonish Review), begins as follows:
We lost a week arguing with navies
and the sons of skeletons we might find.
Ropes fixed to the hull,
the last drowned cry of fifty years
was dragged up like the water’s iron tibia.
Compare this with the opening of “Back Then She Was a Jagged Top,” first published in 2001 (Canadian Literature):
Back then she was a jagged top of a can toward her.
She made her grovel in every broken glass bowl
she could tear,
by making her cry haze-burnt, olive brine.
When a collection presents such a diverse offering as does He Claims He Is the Direct Heir, the result for the reader is usually hit and miss. Some, including myself, are more attracted to poems such as “The Treasure,” while others favour offerings along the lines of “Back Then She Was a Jagged Top.” This is both a blessing and a curse for a book, as it allows everyone to like something, but few to like everything. Unfortunately, this reality is often the death knell for new collections. To convince someone to buy a poetry book is difficult enough, let alone to convince them to buy one in which they know they will only enjoy a portion of what is served to them. I can safely say that if I had first encountered He Claims He Is the Direct Heir by flipping through its pages in a bookstore, I would have passed it up for this very reason.
This, though, would have been a mistake. At his best, in poems such as “Live Chickens” and “Auction: French Wine 1848,” Sarna pulls the reader in with a simple image (as simple as the titles suggest), and then quickly whisks the reader away to a place of unexpected profundity.
These standout poems are not simply highlights in a mixed-bag, however. Instead, they serve also as the accessible entry ports into Sarna’s more surreal and difficult pieces. By moving back and forth between the confounding and the clear, the whimsical and the concrete, each type of poem encourages the reader to try the next. In reading through this book, I found myself intrigued by poems I would have never given a second thought to otherwise, and discovering new depths in poems I had immediately been drawn to.
At the end of “Auction: French Wine 1848,” Sarna observes that “each age of winemakers should drink / its own wine” (56), advice which he seems to have ignored by including such a broad swath of his writing from different stages of his development as a writer. Then again, every “age of winemakers” contains many seasons, some good, some bad, some astounding, and you can only tell one from the other by tasting. These poems are certainly worth a sampling.