Ben Lerner's first collection of poetry, The Lichtenberg Figures, winner of the 2003 Hayden Carruth Award from Copper Canyon Press, is a sequence of untitled fourteen-line poems (with one fifteen-line exception) that run on the collision, the violence, and the unresolved resolution of juxtaposition. Lerner notes himself in a Here Comes Everybody interview:
I have a tendency to write in and about the violence of language, the language of violence. I don't just mean that when bodies appear in my poems they tend to come to blows. I mean that I consider the poem a space in which rhetorical forms can be opposed or juxtaposed in a manner that makes their violence manifest.
The Lichtenberg Figures are identified on the back cover as a sonnet sequence, although they do not conform to established sonnet rhythms or rhymes. They do, however, employ a bit of the sonnet's modus operandi in seeking resolutions within final lines. Many poems turn suddenly, even nonsensically, within the final couplet or stanza on the page (the poems also shed the sonnet's established stanza patterns). Lerner often deftly layers repetitions to establish the volta:
I invite you to think creatively about politics in the age of histamine.
I invite you to think creatively about politics
given men as they are: asthmatic, out of tune and time,
out of bounds and practice. I invite you to run your mouth, to run your hands
through my thin hair like a theme. I invite you to lean your head
against my better judgment. Once uncertainty
ran through these sketches like a Lab. Now, of my early work, a critic has said:
"It was open, so I let myself in." Ladies and gentlemen,
tonight's weather has been canceled. The Academy has condemned
the blue tit. The poor are stealing the saltlicks. Grenades luxuriate
in the garden of decommissioned adjectives. It is the Sabbath. I must invite you
to lay down your knowledge claims,
to lay them down slowly and with great sadness.
Given men as they are, women pack snow into jars for the summer ahead.
Given men as they are, the trees surrender.
Lerner's language employs rapid tonal shifts from absurd to serious to surreal to classically rhetorical. He is willing to employ humor—"I wish all difficult poems were profound. / Honk if you wish all difficult poems were profound."—as well as the nonsensical—"You are the first and last indigenous Nintendo."—as readily as he is willing to entertain more traditionally beautiful poetic lines or frank rhetoric. Many times the wild leaps and illogical juxtapositions obsess over the resolution that is irresolution—endings without discovery, without answer. Endings without endings. Ones that give up and go to sleep. Ones that offer a new question. That deny assumptions. But just as often the surreal, silly, non sequitur aspects of Lerner's work are moments of brilliance:
True, a great work of art takes up the question of its origins
and lets it drop. But this is no great work. This is a sketch
sold on the strength of its signature, a sketch
executed without a trial. Inappropriately formal,
this late work reflects an inability to swallow. Once
my name suggested female bathers
rendered in bright impasto.
Now it is dismissed as "unpronounceable."
Polemical, depressed, these contiguous black planes
were hung to disperse museum crowds. Alas,
a generation of pilgrim smokers
has arrived and set off the sprinklers.
True, abandoning the figure won't change the world.
But then again, neither will changing the world.
Much of the book is a meditation on language and poetry, alternately bemoaning, double daring, or even attempting a reconstruction of contemporary poetics. But Lerner's discourse on poetry, as on nearly every subject within the sequence, repeatedly becomes self-reflexive:
We must retract our offerings burnt as they are.
We must recall our lines of verse like faulty tires.
We must flay the curatoriat, invest our sackcloth,
and enter the Academy single file.
Poetry has yet to emerge.
The image is no substitute. The image is an anecdote
in the mouth of a stillborn. And not reflection,
with its bad infinitude, nor religion, with its eighth of mushrooms,
can bring orgasm to orgasm like poetry. As a policy,
we are generally sorry. But sorry doesn't cut it.
We must ask you to remove your shoes, your lenses, your teeth.
We must ask you to sob openly.
If it is any consolation, we admire the early work of John Ashbery.
If it is any consolation, you won't feel a thing.
Just as Lerner splices together risky collisions and seems ready to challenge the sonnet to semantic fisticuffs, his too imagery is often physically violent. There are multiple references to suicide, to blood. There are car crashes. The word destroy returns in many forms. The title itself refers to the lace-like, fern-like scar bursts occasionally left behind in matter after a lightning strike. A particular Orlando Duran is often the receiving body of violence: "I beat Orlando Duran with a ratchet till he bled from his eye." The particular identity of Orlando Duran seems to remain mysterious—stumping even Google—and he is not developed as a character per se through the course of the sequence. But Duran as an enigmatic figure becomes a figure of questionable importance, manifesting a confusion of irresolution.
…I have absolutely no
idea what I am saying. I know only
that I have a certain sympathy
for the rhetoric of risk and mystery.
There is confusion and risk, too, in the speakers of the sequence. A few poems are dedicated to "Benjamin" (Lerner?). The speakers shift—often untrustworthy in their shifts—often in one poem, such as from Deigo Rodríguez Velázquez to Dr. Samuel Johnson to Charlie Chaplin. One speaker founded Cubism. Another speaker "paid Ben Lerner to write you this poem / in a language that was easy to understand." Often these shifts allow the poems to push beyond self-analysis, to reach into poetic history to challenge the present, to establish and arrange a varied set of languages personally significant to particular characters… Of course their varied presences within the poems align effortlessly with the iconoclastic nature already established by the poems in subject, tone, and reference; Dr. Johnson-Lerner is necessary to the challenges posited in The Lichtenberg Figures.
Despite the confidence lent by the plainspoken sentences that dominate the book, by the nearly universally declarative tone, the vast assembly of violence, question, language, and historical/intellectual/pop cultural detritus drags up anxiety again and again. Violence itself is a subject of anxiety: "I could kill a man / with a maneuver designed to clear the throat of food." The poems themselves are anxious: one poem reiterates the copyright front matter of the book, switching the Dewey classification number for poetry from 811 to 911. Perhaps this anxiety often propels the rapid shifts throughout the book, enabled by a hot-cold affair with accepted forms. "I love you. Fuck you. I'll change."
Lerner's book closes with two sentences in one line: "Real snow on the stage. Fake blood on the snow." These two sentences appear as well in the opening poem. And certainly, Lerner is riffing on the repetition in a crown of sonnets that returns the last poem to the first, but also it seems the lines verge on a symbolic thematic summary—returning in the book's close to a compression of its major themes. Is violence discovered in language willed? Is it falsified? Does it lack a true origin? Where does honesty—when does honesty—enter a room? Memory, time, violence, authenticity, art scramble together in Lerner's last image.
One poem notes: "Only time will tell / if my work is representational. / Only time will tell if time will tell." Fair enough. Today, The Lichtenberg Figures reads as a bold, inventive, playful, and intelligent first book.
Ben Lerner, the youngest poet ever published by Copper Canyon Press, is co-founder of No: a journal of the arts. He earned an MFA from Brown University and is currently a Fulbright scholar in Spain.
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