Sunday, April 21, 2024.
Home Entertainment Review | Ben Lerner’s new poetry collection revels in the miracle of...

Review | Ben Lerner’s new poetry collection revels in the miracle of language


In conversation with the writer Maggie Nelson while promoting his last novel, “The Topeka School,” Ben Lerner casually described the miracle o

f speech: “You can vibrate these columns of air and suddenly some part of consciousness becomes shareable.” A similar dynamic plays out in Lerner’s poetry and prose, where the mere act of speaking sometimes resembles man’s discovery of fire, a revelation that leaves the speaker agog at his accomplishments, which can themselves only evidence powers beyond his own. Indeed, for all the encyclopedic allusions crisscrossing throughout his oeuvre — the minimalist art of Donald Judd, the scourge of high school debate, the pleasures of working at a local (and famous) Brooklyn cooperative grocery store, the shameful condition of White masculinity — he returns most often to speech itself. In Lerner’s works, we see how producing speech, an act we take for granted, has shaped the conditions of modern life, engendering precarity and wonder, paranoia and disbelief.

These concerns are alive throughout his new collection of poetry, “The Lights.” In “Auto-Tune,” for example, he writes in sprawling lines of the speech-shifting technology and its origins: “Our ability to correct sung pitches was the unintended result of an effort to extract hydrocarbons from the earth: / the technology was first developed by an engineer at Exxon to interpret seismic data.” Having reframed a literal machine of modern pop as a product of the petrochemical industry, and in its own way a byproduct of climate change, he jumps back in time, to the 7th-century Anglo-Saxon poet Caedmon, observing, “The first poet in English whose name is known learned the art of song in a dream.” A few lines later, it seems like we are in the near-present as he works his way through the implications of “corporate” speech, but it becomes clear he is speaking from a more abstract, even embryonic moment in time, to think about who actually owns the words that come out of our mouths and populate our pages: “but the voice itself is a created thing, and corporate; / the larynx operates within socially determined parameters we learn to modulate. … You can only sing in a corporate voice of corporate things.”

Reviewing Lerner’s first novel, James Wood said his work “is interested in whether words truly belong to us.” This anxiety is an ancient one, perhaps the ur-concern of poetry, and Lerner’s alienation from language unmoors him not just from social life but from time. One of the functions of his poems is to create a time machine, his verse serving as a vessel in which the speaker can launch forth from the present, then hurtle himself backward and forward; to imagine the end of the world as we know it and to see the birth of poetry; to witness a landscape in two integral literary moments.

That tension is at work in his Brooklyn-set poem “The Dark Threw Patches Down Upon Me Also” (originally published in 2014), which shows us Hart Crane watching the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge. The poem’s speaker reflects explicitly on time travel, thinking of “Back to the Future” and the darkness that lurks beneath Marty McFly’s journey into the past: “In the movie they lack plutonium / to power the time-traveling car, whereas / in real life it seeps into the Fukushima soil, / ‘Back to the Future’ was ahead of its time in 1985.” “The Lights” might be the best showcase for Lerner’s set of themes: Here we find a book caught between the puzzle of prose and poetry, public and private speech, past and present.

Lerner is not merely cerebral; he is the rare writer who is hilarious no matter what form he is working in. “The Rose,” a poem staged as a dialogue between a student and a teacher, contains one of the funniest lines I’ve read this year, an embarrassing moment about psychedelic therapy: “your partner is sinking deeper into her memory foam, texting you the latest article about microdosing. Maybe this will help, sad emoji.” In the collection’s title poem, which vacillates between images of UFOs and scenes of mourning, he smuggles in an arch line that makes fun of the self-regard that poets who look like him might carry: “At least the white poets might be trying to escape, using / the interplanetary to scale / down difference under the sign of encounter.”

One of the oft-repeated complaints about Lerner is that he only knows how to write about himself. Lerner addresses that criticism in this collection, too, winking at readers, telling us he’s listening: “I’m just clicking on things in bed, a review by a man who says I have no feelings and hate art.” This is a reference to a scathing essay by Jon Baskin, broadly about his last novel, in a quarterly literary magazine that did indeed accuse Lerner of being a hater: of literature, of love, of art.

Like his earlier work, “The Lights” leaves me wondering how anyone could come away from Lerner and end up thinking he’s so miserable and mean. It’s clear he is having fun and laughing at himself: In “Untitled (Triptych),” he jokes that he won’t be able to feed his two kids without writing genre fiction, but of course he keeps writing poetry and literary fiction, at his own expense. By the end of that poem, he also revels in beauty, allows himself a moment to be optimistic, thinking of a future when we might discover “tenses to express, what it’s like to be alive today,” which for him remains a quest that is at once collective and intimate. Projecting himself into the future gives him the space to think about the warmth he feels not just for the reader but for his daughters. It’s in moments like these that you see what Lerner is up to: His writing should not be seen as a series of parlor games or a puzzle to be decoded; he is telling us exactly how he feels. The miracle of language, he seems to be saying, isn’t so complicated after all.

Kevin Lozano is the Nation’s associate literary editor.

Farar, Straus and Giroux. 114 pp. $26

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program,
an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking
to and affiliated sites.

POST AUTHOR: Kevin Lozano

Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here