If you are smart and you like to have a chuckle while you read, then please do yourself a favor and don’t read David Lazar’s clever new book “Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy: An Essay on Love” in a quiet public place. This erudite romp through romance is to be relished out loud, in the comfort of your own bed or train car—either alone or with some lucky other. Selections might even find themselves on your ex’s voicemail. If you aren’t a scholar of Greek mythology, you might want to keep your aged college texts (or Google) nearby, because you are going to (re)learn a lot. Greek tragedy, after all, has given readers their first roadmap of love.
This collection of prose poems examines the lures and ravages of love from myriad angles, through layers of Greek mythology, twentieth-century pop culture, an American songbook and the writer’s own experience. Reminding me at times of Jim Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges, it’s not always clear whether the speaker is awake or dreaming, coherent or tripping. Lazar’s drug is desire, and he wants to share the shimmery, intelligent, relentless minnows of remembrance and hybrid conjuring that swim around in his waking and sleeping, wishing and drinking heart, perhaps to make way for new muses. Parties need new guests, after all. He cleverly celebrates love, lust and loneliness over and over, and graciously smacks his lips anticipating his next dip.
Much of the pleasure in reading these poems is in the search for connection between myth and the poem’s event. A favorite, Narcissus, is a meditation on bitterness and self-absorption, beginning, “Here in the city, I only exist after it rains./I start looking for myself when the thunder begins, a head start, eyes down.” It ends: “As much as I deserve to love myself, only I am capable of spitting in my own face.”
Ouch. Love is transient, treacherous, myopic?—even blind at times. It is universal, and damn it, it’s fun to read about. If the sphinx gets you, skip around. Revel in pining, train wrecks, hilarity and loss, and food to soothe you. Enjoy the ride. (Kate Burns)
“Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy: An Essay on Love”
By David Lazar
Etruscan Press, 72 pages, $15
David Lazar reads April 29, 7:30pm, Women and Children First Bookstore, 5233 North Clark, (773)769-9299. Free.