Sunday, February 20, 2005

Hiding in the Open: a Review of THE LICHTENBERG FIGURES

Ben Lerner’s The Lichtenberg Figures—a sequence of fourteen-line poems that some would call sonnets and some not (the octet of one witty sonnet is the book’s Library of Congress Cataloging Data)—bears a stronger resemblance to John Berryman’s The Dream Songs than any recent work that I can think of except that of my friend Karl Parker, whose first book is not yet published. Like Berryman’s eighteen-line Songs, Lerner’s book borrows from a wide range of verbal registers—from pomo-speak to Latin nomenclature, from slacker to hiphop—and more importantly, like Berryman, the poems engage in a dialectic of malice and seduction, of disaffection and longing, of cagey defensiveness and inviting vulnerability. The Henry of the The Dream Songs suffers, along with and through his various parallax personalities, from both the desire to be known and the fear of being known; the brilliance of those poems’ language is that it simultaneously reveals and conceals, confesses to the crime as it absolves itself of said crime, by turns utterly transparent and bafflingly opaque. While Lerner’s book is neither as inventive with syntax or grammar, nor as willing to brook its own occasional ridiculousness as Berryman’s, its brash, dazzling turns-of-phrase insist on your enjoyment at the same time as they tell you (often unconvincingly) that they don’t give a fuck what you think, oscillating between self-promotion and self-sabotage. The mixture works, and traces between wound-suffered and wound-inflicted a better picture of the scene and its crime:

I attend a class for mouth-to-mouth, a class for hand-to-hand.
I can no longer distinguish between combat and resuscitation.
I could revive my victims. I could kill a man
with a maneuver designed to clear the throat of food. Tonight, the moon

sulks at apogee. A bitch complains to the polestar. An enemy
fills a Ping-Pong ball with Drano and drops it in the gas tank of my car.

Reader, may your death strictly adhere to recognized forms.
May someone place his lips on yours, shake you gently, call your name.
May someone interlace his fingers, lock his elbows, and compress your chest,
every two seconds, to the depth of one and one-half inches. In the dream,

I discover my body among the abandoned tracks of North Topeka.
Orlando Duran stands over me, bleeding from his eye. I can no longer distinguish

between verb moods that indicate confidence and those that express uncertainty.
An upward emergency calls away the sky.

In other places, the self-parodying schadenfreud of the speaker, and his also parodic self-regard, is downright hilarious: a line like “My facility with parataxis makes me respected, feared. . . .” can give way to “I strike a teenager with a baseball bat to gain blue-collar credibility.” All this in a poem whose second line is “I sport my underwear on the outside of my trousers . . .” As with Berryman, when the inside and outside reverse it is often just more smokescreen. It is rare to find a poet—especially such a young poet—who grants himself such authority and such license—who allows himself to speak in the voice of a famous poet, a recognized academic, a famous painter, a famous philosopher, “Ben Lerner,” and to satirize these speakers’ will-to-power and the various stale subjectivities which give rise to them at the same time as utilizing the personae for the imaginative possibilities therein. Where Berryman’s poems trouble our notion of the self by clever shifts of point-of-view, grammar and diction, Lerner’s poems achieve this through the conflicting, irresolvable snippets of narrative and character that flit through the book. Such license and self-authoring would seem irksome to me if what the poems were saying weren’t as intelligent and trenchant as it is; while other poets use the lingo of the academy to add texture and a penumbra of profundity to their poems, Lerner’s essayistic glosses of post-structuralism, contemporary poetry and visual art are remarkably cogent and useful; they instruct at the same time as they deconstruct, and such language is never employed without a sense of the imminent ridiculousness it possesses in the face of the world which could care less about it:

“Gather your marginals, Mr Specific. The end
is nigh. Your vanguard of vanishing points has vanished
in the critical night. We have encountered a theory of plumage
with plumage. We have decentered our ties. You must quit
these Spenglerian Suites, this roomy room, this gloomy Why.

And here’s the crucial ironic volta, a little earlier than it usually comes:

Never again will your elephants shit in the embassy.
Never again will you cruise through Topeka in your sporty two-door coffin.
In memoriam, we will leave the laws you’ve broken broken.
On vision and modernity in the twentieth-century, my mother wrote
“Help me.” On the history of structuralism my father wrote
“Settle down.” On the American Midwest from 1979 to the present, I wrote
“Gather you marginals, Mr. Specific. The end is nigh.

I wish all difficult poems were profound.
Honk if you wish all difficult poems were profound.

What surprises about this poem, and the other lecture-poems in the collection, is that despite their intelligent and trenchant gloss of post-structuralist thought, they are not very difficult; they are remarkably transparent, and terms like “decentered” and “modernity,” are used to clarify not obfuscate. The poems are profound, often, but rarely difficult. The difficulty of the poems occurs as a result of global not local effects. at the junctures between poems and sometimes, rarely, at the level of semantics, but the language of each poem is remarkably lucid and pithy. This is perhaps as much an asset as it is a liability. Lerner is truly adroit with parataxis, allowing him to create remarkable juxtapositions, and the poems’ clarity is often a function of its syntax. But by the end of the book, I begin to long for some hypotactic sentences, some verbal waters more deeply troubled and ruffled by rhythm, linebreak, music and syntax. I start to suspect that things have been made a bit too easy by this remarkable mind. Indeed, because of the poems’ ease of reading, their casual facility with language, they may not have the staying power that they could. I start to wonder if, like the controlling metaphor of the book—geometric figures that appear on, and quickly fade from, the skin of someone struck by lightning—these poems’ bedizening effects may be precisely what keeps them from completely taking root. Certainly not a flash in the pan, but also not a book demands and insists upon immediate rereading. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful debut, one of the best first books I’ve read in a long time, and from what I’ve seen in the journals, Lerner’s subsequent collections promise to improve upon and extend his achievements here. A poet to watch.

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