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BOOK REVIEW

Cyrus Console reviews

The Lichtenberg Figures
by Ben Lerner

Copper Canyon Press, 2004. 53 pp.
ISBN: 1-55659-211-6

This review is 1,200 words
or about 4 printed pages long

Sustained elegy

Violence is not so much the subject of these poems as it is the behavior they exhibit, a series of reenactments precise and unaffected as those of troubled children. Modeling that violence is the image, now reflected unto perpetuity, of a civilization who value the spotlessness of their records over that of their consciences, whose stock phrases have long outdistanced their founding sentiments, whose individual voices have been rendered inaudible by the deafening cliché of computer mice on brightly colored type, cutting, pasting, issuing consent. Consider the violence of the American high school on students whom it less educates than surveils; that of the free market upon the facts it is interested to conceal, and above all that inflicted upon the language itself by a culture in denial, a violence begotten of decadence and the exhaustion of all decent sensation; the painful indolence of Cleopatra's hatpin.

When the dream of convenience begins to dream itself,
the neighborhood’s last bamboos reel in their roots.
The children make love “execution style,”
then hold each other like moments of silence.

For this sequence Ben Lerner has appropriated the tongues of theory and criticism, those of Topeka and Providence and Berkeley. Like a native, he speaks the flat dialect of the American suburbs which began to form in the mid-1970s and whose constituents primarily occupy the airwaves. It is not necessary here — as it is too often in the run of shows, recitals, and services which we are fortunate to attend — for the enthusiast to will him or herself into receptiveness. Lerner owns a compelling English. His voice might shift the consensus on which the aesthetic depends, or reorganize it.

Lichtenberg figure

Lichtenberg figure

Lichtenberg Figures are electrical discharges that have been permanently captured within clear acrylic plastic, combining the technologies of particle beam and dielectric physics with the natural beauty of fractals. The patterns within the plastic are the result of a multi-million volt electrical discharge that has blasted its way through the acrylic, leaving a permanent record of its passage, like a ‘fossil’, behind. Picture courtesy of Stoneridge Engineering. Go Here to learn more about how these works of scientific art are created.


The 52 sonnets comprising The Lichtenberg Figures may be superficially distinguished by their marriage of two approaches emerging poets frequently adopt: the first being archaism, literary ostent:


I, Dr. Samuel Johnson, experience moments of such profound alienation

that I have surrendered my pistols to the care of my sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche

the second, overweening contemporaneity:

When I first found the subjunctive, she was broke and butt-naked.
Now she wants half...

But Lerner is, to my understanding, the best emerging poet. If he was only 23 when his book won the Carruth award, these occasional resemblances can be allowed. He invokes Jay-Z as gracefully as he does the Middle English; it is not so much from the poetaster’s wish to be timely, as it is to give a shout-out to a fellow master-in-the-making: one lyricist winking at another across posterity’s lonely verge.

Throughout the sequence lucid reference to continental philosophy and remarkable art-historical insight jostle vignettes from the profoundly despiritualized youth culture of the American Midwest. For none in the present-day Midwest are free to give their children a noble education.

 

Your child lacks a credible god-term, a jargon of intimacy.

He fails to distinguish between illusion (Schein) and beautiful illusion ( schöner Schein).

He is inept and unattractive.

Today I asked your child to depress


the right pedal, to stop the action of the dampers

so that the strings could vibrate freely. In response he struck me

in the stomach with a pipe.

Lerner has a way of returning specifically to the language of painting, though with trepidation, as if fearful to destroy a hollow form. Maybe he would like to counterbalance his invective, to posit Art’s durable transcendence as talisman against the declension-in-place of our culture—but the hedging gesture at the end of these passages betrays imperfect faith.

...For many years,

we lacked an adequate theory of decline
and affected spiritual gloom
with a turbulent cross-layering of brushwork.
Then, with the invention of the camera, we began to cry.

[...]

...Once
my name suggested female bathers
rendered in bright impasto.
Now it is dismissed as "unpronounceable.”

[...]

True, abandoning the figure won’t change the world.
But then again, neither will changing the world.

As a critic what he understands with special acuity is that when a handful of franchises feed and clothe a people, when a handful of networks furnish it with notions—with the bulk of its episodic memory, if you like—then it has no memory to speak of; it wears no clothes, takes no nourishment.

Out of this realization—that for our people now the good bread is the bread without qualities, that it is no longer the shirt on our backs that we wear, but the word on the shirt, and that that is not even a word, but some snow of latinate syllables like Altria or Novartis, Lerner has drawn a sustained elegy whose outstanding stylistic mark is a systematic turning of the phrase upon itself. It serves to figure the hard vacuity of that culture out of which the poems have sprung — that culture, awash in whose pointless waters we find ourselves grasping at straws like [insert periodical name].

We must recall our lines of verse like faulty tires ...

I invite you to lean your head

against my better judgment ...

I must drive many lines to deliver this punch line. ...

Blood on the time that we have on our hands. ...

Every weekend, the law gets laid ...

Like a blouse, the most elegant crimes were left undone. ...

He demonstrates that, contrary to folk theory, a language is not its vocabulary but its syntax. The chief implication being that we have not so much a life story as a manner of speaking. Observe a second formal coup in his employment of the line-break—the poetic shibboleth that is Lerner’s enjambment:

We had thought that by arranging words at random
we could avoid ideology. We were right.
Then we were terribly wrong. ...

[...]

True, a great work 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. ...

[...]

She shot herself. And, with a typically raucous cry,
her glossy, black body fell from typical sky.

[...]

Will these failures grow precious through repetition
and, although we cannot hope to be forgiven,
will these failures grow precious through repetition?

To follow the movement of thought across these typographical synapses yields a very rare experience: that of the presence of real virtuosity. Failing that, there are single lines which sound ‘household’ the first time we hear them:

I am going to kill the President. ...

...[T]he sound of one hand clapping is a heartbeat

Tears appreciate in this economy of pleasure

but it is the larger movement that indicates a gift. The sequence, closely read, is an education in Form—the laws of which Lerner has manipulated without apparent effort. The Lichtenberg Figures are the kind of poetry that reminds you what a real artist does with words. Because

...not reflection,
with its bad infinitude, nor religion, with its eighth of mushrooms,
can bring orgasm to orgasm like poetry.
Cyrus Console

Cyrus Console

Cyrus Console studies in the Creative Writing program at the University of Kansas.

You can read more about Ben Lerner on his Jacket author notes page.


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