Home Entertainment Ben Lerner’s new poetry assortment revels within the miracle of language

Ben Lerner’s new poetry assortment revels within the miracle of language


In dialog with the author Maggie Nelson whereas selling his final novel, “The Topeka Faculty,” Ben Lerner casually described the miracle of speech: “You may vibrate these columns of air and all of a sudden some a part of consciousness turns into shareable.” An identical dynamic performs out in Lerner’s poetry and prose, the place the mere act of talking typically resembles man’s discovery of fireside, a revelation that leaves the speaker agog at his accomplishments, which may themselves solely proof powers past his personal. Certainly, for all of the encyclopedic allusions crisscrossing all through his oeuvre — the minimalist artwork of Donald Judd, the scourge of highschool debate, the pleasures of working at an area (and well-known) Brooklyn cooperative grocery retailer, the shameful situation of White masculinity — he returns most frequently to speech itself. In Lerner’s works, we see how producing speech, an act we take as a right, has formed the circumstances of contemporary life, engendering precarity and marvel, paranoia and disbelief.

These considerations are alive all through his new assortment of poetry, “The Lights.” In “Auto-Tune,” for instance, he writes in sprawling strains of the speech-shifting know-how and its origins: “Our means to right sung pitches was the unintended results of an effort to extract hydrocarbons from the earth: / the know-how was first developed by an engineer at Exxon to interpret seismic knowledge.” Having reframed a literal machine of contemporary pop as a product of the petrochemical business, and in its personal method a byproduct of local weather change, he jumps again in time, to the Seventh-century Anglo-Saxon poet Caedmon, observing, “The primary poet in English whose identify is thought discovered the artwork of tune in a dream.” A number of strains later, it looks as if we’re within the near-present as he works his method by means of the implications of “company” speech, nevertheless it turns into clear he’s talking from a extra summary, even embryonic second in time, to consider who truly owns the phrases that come out of our mouths and populate our pages: “however the voice itself is a created factor, and company; / the larynx operates inside socially decided parameters we study to modulate. … You may solely sing in a company voice of company issues.”

Reviewing Lerner’s first novel, James Wooden stated his work “is concerned with whether or not phrases actually belong to us.” This nervousness is an historical one, maybe the ur-concern of poetry, and Lerner’s alienation from language unmoors him not simply from social life however from time. One of many features of his poems is to create a time machine, his verse serving as a vessel through which the speaker can launch forth from the current, then hurtle himself from side to side; to think about the top of the world as we all know it and to see the start of poetry; to witness a panorama in two integral literary moments.

That stress is at work in his Brooklyn-set poem “The Darkish Threw Patches Down Upon Me Additionally” (initially revealed in 2014), which reveals us Hart Crane watching the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge. The poem’s speaker displays explicitly on time journey, pondering of “Again to the Future” and the darkness that lurks beneath Marty McFly’s journey into the previous: “Within the film they lack plutonium / to energy the time-traveling automobile, whereas / in actual life it seeps into the Fukushima soil, / ‘Again to the Future’ was forward of its time in 1985.” “The Lights” is perhaps the very best showcase for Lerner’s set of themes: Right here we discover a ebook caught between the puzzle of prose and poetry, private and non-private speech, previous and current.

Lerner isn’t merely cerebral; he’s the uncommon author who’s hilarious it doesn’t matter what type he’s working in. “The Rose,” a poem staged as a dialogue between a pupil and a trainer, incorporates one of many funniest strains I’ve learn this yr, an embarrassing second about psychedelic remedy: “your associate is sinking deeper into her reminiscence foam, texting you the most recent article about microdosing. Possibly it will assist, unhappy emoji.” Within the assortment’s title poem, which vacillates between photos of UFOs and scenes of mourning, he smuggles in an arch line that makes enjoyable of the self-regard that poets who appear like him would possibly carry: “At the very least the white poets is perhaps making an attempt to flee, utilizing / the interplanetary to scale / down distinction underneath the signal of encounter.”

One of many oft-repeated complaints about Lerner is that he solely is aware of easy methods to write about himself. Lerner addresses that criticism on this assortment, too, winking at readers, telling us he’s listening: “I’m simply clicking on issues in mattress, a evaluate by a person who says I’ve no emotions and hate artwork.” It is a reference to a scathing essay by Jon Baskin, broadly about his final novel, in a quarterly literary journal that did certainly accuse Lerner of being a hater: of literature, of affection, of artwork.

Like his earlier work, “The Lights” leaves me questioning how anybody might come away from Lerner and find yourself pondering he’s so depressing and imply. It’s clear he’s having enjoyable and laughing at himself: In “Untitled (Triptych),” he jokes that he gained’t have the ability to feed his two youngsters with out writing style fiction, however after all he retains writing poetry and literary fiction, at his personal expense. By the top of that poem, he additionally revels in magnificence, permits himself a second to be optimistic, pondering of a future after we would possibly uncover “tenses to specific, what it’s wish to be alive in the present day,” which for him stays a quest that’s directly collective and intimate. Projecting himself into the long run offers him the house to consider the heat he feels not only for the reader however for his daughters. It’s in moments like these that you just see what Lerner is as much as: His writing shouldn’t be seen as a collection of parlor video games or a puzzle to be decoded; he’s telling us precisely how he feels. The miracle of language, he appears to be saying, isn’t so difficult in spite of everything.

Kevin Lozano is the Nation’s affiliate literary editor.

Farar, Straus and Giroux. 114 pp. $26

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