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He Claims He Is the Direct Heir

by Lazar Sarna

He Claims He Is the Direct Heir is Montreal lawyer Lazar Sarna’s fourth poetry collection, but his first in over a quarter-century. In their conceits and concerns and their bleak gallows humour, Sarna’s poems are in many ways more closely related to Eastern European verse (Goran Simic, Zbigniew Herbert, and Czeslaw Milosz spring to mind) or a more ancient vein of Hebrew poetry than to British or North American traditions. This gives the work a voice that is at once primeval and fresh; the poems have an oracular ring without being in the least sermonesque.

One hears it said often of poets that they “make the familiar strange.” This is true of Sarna, but it doesn’t say quite enough: Sarna often takes the banal – the normal and the normative – and doesn’t so much make it strange as he makes us see how fundamentally strange our assumptions and mores can be. As with Kafka, it is not an impression of weirdness with which we are left, but of a disillusioned clarity: “I cannot mend the rend;/of course torn things stay torn.”

Sarna’s picture of the world is often infernal. The poems are studded with cold-blooded tropes of slaughter and broken contracts. Perhaps it takes a lawyer to appreciate why Dante reserved an especially low circle in hell for thieves, counsellors of fraud, and especially falsifiers. Money figures prominently as a metaphor cum cliché, once representing fruitful communal exchange and later a false and sterile idol. Sarna’s book is a reminder of the intrinsic ambivalence of a bond, something that can signify both slavery and love.

In his adumbration of large themes and in the morality – not to be confused with moralism – of his poetry, Sarna is that rare, perhaps anachronistic, thing in an age of personal expression, cursory impressions, moral relativism, and ironic distance: a poet who wears the mantle of a prophet. That he wears it uneasily and speaks with dry humour makes his words all the more convincing. He is indeed the direct heir of something grand and important.