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Ben Lerner
Mean Free Path
84 pp.
Copper Canyon Press
ISBN 978–1-55659–314-7. Paper.

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner

Dialog on Love:

Ben Lerner and Aaron Kunin
in conversation

Also see “The Art of Losing, Re-mastered”: A review/essay by David Gorin, in this issue of Jacket.

You can also read Aaron Kunin in conversation with Ben Lerner in Jacket 37, discussing The Mandarin, by Aaron Kunin.


Aaron Kunin: Love poetry traditionally thrives on difficulty. Thomas Nashe summarized Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella  [1] in these words: “The argument, cruel chastity; the prologue, hope; the epilogue, despair.” The perfection and coldness of Stella are productive; it would be a disaster for poetry if she returned Astrophel’s love. The poems in Mean Free Path have a problem with love, a problem “speaking of it” that comes out as a stutter. But the problem isn’t the difficulty of unrequited love. You’re writing about something less dramatic, and more intimate: love at home, amid the rhythms of daily life, overlapping with or overshadowed by other concerns — art, business, mundane household tasks — sometimes interrupted by the public world or merely the external world. “Ben/ There is a man at the door who says” (33). The problem is, how do you talk about something so ordinary as to be almost beneath notice?


Ben Lerner: One advantage of the unrequited in love poetry is that it provides a fictional support for apostrophe — the recipient of address isn’t responding, isn’t there, because of her coldness or superiority, not because she’s been objectified, or because she’s a personified abstraction, or whatever. This book has many moments of address, but their failure to be reciprocal is understood as a limitation of the speaker or his medium, not some attribute of the beloved (perfection, indifference, death). And I’m often addressed by others in these poems about these poems, as in the stanza you quote, and at least once addressed about how I have produced a fiction of unavailability as a cover for the one-sidedness of a certain kind of love poem: “Why am I always// asleep in your poems” (30). But, yes, that traditional difficulty of unrequited love isn’t the major challenge.


The difficulty here is closer to Creeley’s difficulty in “For Love” — the difficulty of “speaking of it” when one wants to move into the rhythms of daily life, but also when one is aware of the perils of certain forms of “speaking of it” in poetry. “For Love” is a crucial model for this book. That poem begins with a rejection of the temptation of apostrophe, which comes from the Greek for “to turn away”:


Yesterday I wanted to
speak of it, that sense above
the others to me
important because all

that I know derives
from what it teaches me.
Today, what is it that
is finally so helpless,

different, despairs of its own
statement, wants to
turn away, endlessly
to turn away.


Creeley almost turns away into familiar figural territory, but the poem begins to break up: “If the moon did not … / no, if you did not/ I wouldn’t either, but/ what would I not/ do, what prevention what/ thing so quickly stopped.” And I think the dangers of lyric address, especially metnoymizing address, come back in a horrifying way later in the poem:


Love, what do I think
to say. I cannot say it.
What have you become to ask,
what have I made you into,

companion, good company,
crossed legs with skirt, or
soft body under
the bones of the bed.


Address quickly robs the addressed of personhood — she becomes her parts, then her clothes (“skirt” is a famously demeaning shorthand), and, in the ultimate dehumanization, she’s even less a person than the bed, which at least has bones.


To (finally at least begin to) answer your question more directly, I think this drama — the drama of wanting to speak of it without idealization, objectification, violence — replaces the drama of the unrequited, or at least transposes it: it’s not that some ice queen won’t give the lover the time of day, won’t return his affection, rather the poem records the inability of the poet to find responsible form for that affection in the first place. This is what makes the failures of expression in “For Love” so expressive.

Aaron Kunin

Aaron Kunin


AK: I want to come back to the pastoral idea of love that avoids idealization, objectification, and violence, the love that “seeketh not itself to please,” as the clod puts it in Songs of Experience. But first I’d like to hear more about the conventions that you are trying to escape, which have a strong presence in the poems. “The war.” “Night-vision green” as a frame for perception. In the lines “soon I will lose the power/ To select, while retaining the power to” (14) I hear Dickinson’s “loaded gun” as well as the kind of person who, in Shakespeare’s formulation, has a latent “power to hurt” but not to be hurt. The gun comes out at the turn of the next page: “My numb/ Rebarbative people, put down your Glocks/ And your Big Gulps” (16). That last sentence is unusual in this book not just because it runs continuously past two line breaks, but also in its violent theme and public mode of address. It sounds like a sentence from The Lichtenberg Figures or Angle of Yaw, although this time the speaker is negotiating with the “rebarbative people” rather than threatening them. And here I want to say, as your poems say, “that’s love,” because you are talking about something that can be predicated on love. The conventions of possession and violence might not seem as beautiful as they once did, but they might still have value as a true account of love, or a kind of love that “seeketh only self to please” in the words of the pebble.


BL: Yeah, neither clod nor pebble is a desirable model, but I do think those kinds of love are present in the poems as risks. One problem with the poetic clod is the way claims of selflessness are so often foils for self-congratulation: “hey everyone, look at my selflessness” — maybe we could call this the televangelical mode. In Mean Free Path I might be most a clod when I get so caught up in dramatizing the difficulties of making a responsible statement of affection that I risk a solipsism under the sign of responsibility to another. Do you know that moment in Oppen’s Daybooks where he notes how Creeley is always repeating in one form or another the question: can two people be faithful to one another? And Oppen just says: “Well, as to that: yes, they can.” I found that to be a really powerful moment in the Daybooks; commitment was never Oppen’s problem. I mean, when you’re posing that question again and again, you don’t want somebody answering it so simply, you want somebody to congratulate you on being tortured. And of course this ostensible selflessness can be very painful to the person it supposedly benefits: “I want to love you purely, without idealization objectification, and violence, but that’s not possible because of my failings and/or our historical moment, so instead of committing to you, I’m going to make a performance of my thoughtfulness, my selflessness, and meanwhile maybe sleep around, etc.” This is a pebble in clod’s clothing. So I agree with you that the claim to forgo idealization and objectification can be pastoral or worse. And I’m grateful for your observation about how the gun links those two passages together.


Maybe another way the poems link the clod and pebble is pornography? Both clod and pebble could be said to deny the possibility of love as reciprocal (so we’re back, in a sense, to the problem of apostrophe). There is a significant amount of worry in Mean Free Path about this, which is also a concern about simulation: “… If it reciprocates the gaze / How is it pornography?” (10); “… Glass anthers / Confuse bees. Is that pornography? (13),” and so on.


AK: I’m partly inclined to give a negative answer to Oppen’s paraphrase of Creeley’s question. That is, I think Oppen is correct in a moral sense: it’s possible for two people to act well. I think he’s also correct in an epistemological sense (which is the main force of the question for Creeley, who wants to go inside someone’s head, open the skull and put a light in it, to see what’s going on). Yes, I think that’s possible: occasionally, in extraordinary circumstances that require a lot of effort to produce and maintain, the face and the head become transparent to you, and you’re actually looking at a person’s thought. In an ontological sense, though, I don’t think so. I don’t think two people ever want the same thing. Maybe it’s possible, but it never happens.


In Bluets, Maggie Nelson writes about a relationship of perfect compatibility: “We fuck well because he is a passive top and I am an active bottom.” That makes a lot of sense to me: not mutuality, but compatibility. (I mean, all feelings are mutual in the sense that people collaborate on them. Stella gets something out of, and contributes something to, the love that she coldly rejects.) The lesson might go like this — and I’m going to put this statement in a language even more crude than Nelson’s —


Top and bottom: perfect happiness.
Two tops: momentary happiness.
Two bottoms: tragedy.


In the words of Silvan Tomkins, “If you like to be sucked or bitten and I like to suck or bite you, we may enjoy each other.” But if both of us like to be bitten, then we can do nothing (except fight, which neither of us enjoys, about who has to do the biting this time). Whereas if both of us like to bite, we can still bite each other, or compete, which is fun for us! The only combination that can’t possibly work (believe me, I’ve tried) is two bottoms.


Nelson’s book has some vulgar language in it. Some passages might be considered pornographic. Your book is not pornography by any stretch of the imagination. The speaker who asks, “Is that pornography?”, is detached, regarding an object from a critical distance, and also uncertain. He doesn’t know pornography when he sees it. If anything, you’re doing “pornography, the theory,” which, according to Frances Ferguson, is utilitarianism, an ethic premised on the use of people as instruments.


BL: Yes, not knowing pornography when you see it is the worry here — not knowing when the instrumental is masquerading as reciprocal. Which is not to say one can’t like to be bitten. You’re probably right that two Clods would make a tragic couple. Of course, “pornography” in these poems is used very loosely, as a shorthand for how relationships between people can be replaced with their image. Since we’re being crude, I remember my brother’s friend giving me advice about masturbation when I was in middle school. He suggested first sitting on one’s hand until it was numb — he called it giving oneself “a stranger.” An un-erotic and unintentional version of such self- alienation appears in the poems: “… I held the hand/ Of a complete stranger during takeoff/ Unaware it was my own, laying bare/ The ideological function of// Numbness… ” (17–18).


AK: All right, let’s talk about the positive account of love in your poems. “There is no such thing as non sequitur/ When you’re in love” (16). This could mean a poetic violation of logic, such as the pathetic fallacy. Everything seems related because it reminds you of what you love: “I just remembered/ something about Ari” (36). You see everything through the lens of what you are feeling, sort of the reverse side of the problem of “taking autumn personally” (39). In fact, isn’t taking autumn personally the textbook example of the pathetic fallacy? Ruskin refers specifically to a passage in “Christabel” where Coleridge sees a falling leaf, “the last of all its clan,” making the most of its brief existence, dancing as long as it “can.”


Or, and this is not quite the same thing, love could reject non sequitur through the process that Stendhal calls “crystallization,” the stage of falling in love where the lover attributes every perfection to the love object. Florizel tells Perdita in The Winter’s Tale:


Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are queens. (4.4.143–46)


This majesty of action makes Perdita, although apparently the daughter of a shepherd, worthy of a prince’s love. That could be because Perdita is a queen’s daughter in disguise (which she is), or because Florizel sees his own majesty in her, or because she would become a queen if she married him. Sometimes Stendhal argues that crystallization is purely subjective, a delusion of perfection that has little to do with the actual qualities of the love object; at other times, that it happens objectively, as a chemical process. Through being loved, the love object becomes perfect, in a process similar to the formation of salt crystals on a branch.


My question for you is, when love rejects non sequitur, does that corrode or affirm formal logic? Does love reveal the reasons behind the connections between things, or does it reveal that there are no deeper connections than one thing following another?


BL: In “The New Sentence,” Ron Silliman argues that a certain kind of experimental writing strategically frustrates our “will to integration,” our tendency to assimilate sentences into higher orders of meaning (paragraphs, chapters, plots). This is a dematerializing motion that the new sentence interrupts via disjunction. By giving us sentences that don’t smoothly integrate, but that are presented as if they should integrate (in paragraphs), our attention is kept focused on the materiality of language. Here non sequitur is a (sometimes painful) lesson for the reader: You will be tempted to eat at the tree of integration, but shall not. And you should be ashamed of integration because it is homologous to commodity fetishism.


We could contrast that with Ashbery. In, say, Three Poems, what’s exhilarating is how everything seems to integrate seamlessly, how one is carried across those fluid sentences as if higher units of meaning were coalescing, but if you stop your reading and attempt to define that higher unit (“narrative,” or “argument”), its content vanishes. Dematerialization is taken to an extreme (“like tumbling clouds/ In a sky full of clouds, clouds upon clouds,” as he writes in “Poem in Three Parts.”) There is an embrace of immateriality here, the strange capacity of discrete sentences to dissolve into a larger architecture, even if what’s being built is a castle in the sky. Ashbery is fond of quoting a James Tate line: “Everything is relevant. I call it loving.” Even within that line, this embrace of our integrative capacity is on display. You can replace “loving” with almost any word and the two sentences will maintain a syllogistic force. “Everything is relevant. I call it syntax.”


Ashbery and the new sentence aren’t ultimately opposed — both make us aware that integration is produced by reading, not just discovered, and that the affect of integration can be experienced without arriving at a stable integrated whole.


Those lines you quote emerge in the wake of some serious anxiety about integration, about how to combine (the missing word in the Dickinson moment you mentioned before) disparate elements without erasing difference “… Unique flakes form/ Indistinguishable drifts in a process we call/ All these words look the same to me/ Fascism. Arrange the flowers by their price” (15). So after all of this tortured rumination about the possibility of combination, that stanza arrives as a kind of optimism of the will: “Then, where despair had been… ” Being in love is a way of re-describing the mass of contingency (“one thing following another”) into a kind of tenuous integral. The bravado involved in that gesture will of course be dissolved pretty quickly by the poems’ formal processes. But it will reemerge.


For some people, there is no such thing as non sequitur in love because “we were meant for each other,” “it was fate,” etc. Everything that happened, happened for a reason — to bring me and my soul mate together. For others, for myself, part of the power of certain rituals (e.g. a kind of marriage) is that they are ways of willing contingencies retrospectively, to say “yes” to whatever jumble of events brought you into the present — everything is relevant. This sounds like Nietzsche’s “eternal return” or something, but he hated promises, whereas I’m talking precisely about the ground for making promises, which might be unfashionable among poets because of its dependence on the first person. But it is a challenge to will contingency without “taking autumn personally,” without making the dying leaf dance for you, etc. And, despite this momentary denial of non sequitur, the poems go out of their way to make the reader conscious of the cracks in any ostensibly integrated whole.


All of this is a longwinded way of saying that love has to simultaneously corrode and affirm formal logic, affirming it, but as a fiction — or that the form of these poems is an attempt to dramatize your question, as opposed to answering it definitively. You could also say that love is more of a reading practice than a writing practice.


AK: This might be a good time to ask about how the poems represent the textures of ordinary life. There are two motifs that I’d like to isolate for comment: the repeated action in which “Ari removes the bobby pins,” and the constant uncertainty, which is inflected in several ways, as to whether a phrase or idea has been spoken or not. That first image may be the most pictorial element in the book’s vocabulary, and, like many poem-pictures, it’s a little fetishistic; it presents a whole person in action, ultimately focusing on the smallest intermediary accessories to the action, the pins. It reminds me a little of the scene in The World of Apu where Apu, married suddenly and almost by accident, stares for a long time at a pin that his wife has left on a pillow, as if to say: wow, I didn’t leave this here. I could not have invented this. It’s as though she is more present in the pin than anywhere else in the apartment.


The uncertainty of having spoken has several modes. One is inadvertent or comic: “Did I say that out loud?” (10). Another is an acknowledgement of the limits of rhetorical power: “Is my answer audible” (46) means that when I speak, even when I am sure that I have spoken, I don’t have the power to make myself heard. (The following line, “Or mine,” suggests that I can’t be sure who is speaking.) The most common mode of this motif refers to the recursive development of the poems: has this element appeared before? What else can it say?


I follow the poems in isolating these motifs, because the speaker sets them apart as occasions for aesthetic judgment — a beautiful picture, a beautiful question.


BL: You are certainly justified in isolating those motifs, but I think the anxiety about the fetishism is incorporated into the work. I’m not saying this excuses it necessarily. The repetition of the “Ari removes the bobby pins” moment could be said to undermine its stability in so far as it dramatizes an author trying to figure out what to do with this image, expressing or enacting a tentativeness or provisionality. I’m testing out (metaphoric) causal relations: “Ari removes the bobby pins/ I remove the punctuation” (13) and the second: “Ari removes the bobby pins/ Night falls” (16). I think of this less as two occasions of Ari doing something and more as two occasions of my trying to do something with one image.


Generally the recursion and repetition serve to trouble the finality of any particular combination. Many of the most direct modal statements, the most plainspoken moments, are built of language the poems have taught us is found, is not “original” to that particular utterance. This doesn’t ironize the statements, but it emphasizes how expression is a function of construction, a way of working with materials, as opposed to some overflow of interiority.


The uncertainty regarding having spoken is, on the one hand, a trope of self-alienation — is that my voice, do I have a voice, etc. But it also refers to the difficulty these poems pose for the voice, a difficulty that’s thematized. Lines in the “Mean Free Path” sections are often out of order, or belong to more than one possible order simultaneously. Sometimes this plurality of possible combinations is celebrated as love — in part because, as discussed above, willing a particular order as if it cohered can ground a responsible commitment: “There are three hundred sixty two thousand/ And that’s love. There are flecks of hope/ Eight hundred eighty ways to read each stanza/ Deep in traditional forms like flaws/ Visible when held against the light” (43).


At other moments, the difficulty of vocalizing a stanza becomes the sign of elegy. While the stutters and interruptions might seem to privilege the spoken, the braiding of lines makes actually speaking the poems in a linear fashion exceedingly difficult. Unreadable aloud, the poems become a kind of moment of silence held in memory of a friend, and that silence measures the incommensurability of elegy and its object. (The last poem in the first section of “Mean Free Path” is a more or less explicit statement of this process.)


This might be wrong, by the way — the poems might work perfectly well when read aloud. But they keep claiming they’re impossible to vocalize.


AK: You refer a few times to something called “the new closure.” The strongest devices of closure in the poems are the shapes of the stanzas and the objectification of those shapes and the phrases as they recur. These devices do something like what refrains do, according to Barbara Herrnstein Smith: the recurrent element asserts the boundedness of the poem as object. On Smith’s account, the poem is supposed to end where the recurrent element appears in an especially surprising, emphatic form. Thematically, however, your poems treat repetition as undermining closure. If Smith is the old closure, then what is the new closure?


I guess I’m pointing toward the classic question: how do you know — how did you know, when composing these poems — where to end? You made a joke of this question in a line that ties together the first and last poems in The Lichtenberg Figures: “Did you mean ‘this could go on forever’ in a good way?” That’s also a kind of love, the feeling that “I could look at that face forever.”


BL: Barbara Herrnstein Smith is particularly brilliant on the concept of “terminal modification” — a strategic interruption of a pattern produces a sense of closure more effectively than another iteration of that pattern (which could presumably just go on). One candidate for the “new closure” in these poems could be the way the “Mean Free Path” sections start with what you could call, approaching an oxymoron, “initial modification.” The “Mean Free Path” sections are eighteen pages of eighteen lines, two nine line stanzas separated by a glyph. Except the first stanza of each section has ten lines — so the sections begin with a modification of the form, but of course this can only be realized retrospectively, after the pattern from which the initial stanza departs has established itself. The exception that proves the rule precedes it. These are the last few lines of the first section of “Mean Free Path”:


… Go in fear of abstraction
But go. Be gone by morning. There is nothing
You don’t need a shell. Just cup your hand
Nothing for you here but repetition (26)


These are answering the last lines of the first stanza in the sequence:


… Hearing the echo
Of your own blood in the shell but picturing
The ocean is what I meant by (9)


So on the one hand this is a kind of loop, an enactment of the repetition it describes — we’re back at the beginning. But since the beginning contains the one modification of the formal pattern, a modification we could not initially experience as such, this is a return with a difference, a return to a beginning that now has one of the formal signatures of closure. But since this first-last stanza breaks off at the end, that potential closural effect is undermined. We could also take the injunction at the end of the section seriously — to go, to leave the sequence and move on. But if we move into the second section of “Mean Free Path,” we will find the other ten-line stanza in the book.


Generally, I hope the imposed forms of these poems complicate the distinction between closure and mere ending — breaking off, running out of space (or time), or the implied possibility of indefinite continuation. Sometimes there are strong closural effects in a particular stanza, sometimes the stanzas are fragments. Sometimes they look like fragments until they’re picked up later in the sequence. I hope it’s unclear — it’s certainly unclear to me — what’s a part and what’s a whole. Is “Mean Free Path” one thirty-six page poem? Two eighteen page poems with the same title? Seventy-two nine-line poems? (There are versions of these questions for “Doppler Elegies”). This is another way of structurally posing the problems of integration we discussed above.


I agree that the question of ending and the question of closure have particular force in the context of a love poem (and in elegy, the other strain in this work). I mean, I don’t want to make a “little book for Ari” that just dramatizes the infinite deferral of meaning and asserts all possible first person states are grammatical fictions. That’s a pretty fucked up gift, a bouquet of post-structuralist clichés. But you also want to acknowledge the truth in those positions and avoid the kinds of idealization and objectification we’ve been talking about.


AK: Anne-Lise François has an essay about what she calls “the missing of love,” a love that shows itself by taking its object for granted. The center of her essay is Hardy’s Poems of 1912–1913, written in memory of his first wife Emma. In these poems, the speaker keeps discovering that he has become so accustomed to Emma’s presence that he can hardly tell whether she is present or absent, and thus her death makes little apparent difference. This kind of love is open to a cynical response — “not thinking of you as left behind” could mean, François acknowledges, simply “not thinking of you” at all — but she gives a sympathetic account of it as ordinary, daily, and deeply trusting. (She also relates it to Hardy’s sources in Virgil’s Aeneid and Georgics where Aeneas loses track of Creusa because he assumes she is following behind at the conventional distance, and where Palinurus falls asleep at the wheel because of a deep trust in the boat, the wind, and the ocean.)


Looking back at the image of “Ari removing the bobby pins” with François’s account in mind, I notice that the phrase itself suggests two different readings, and I may have moved too quickly in preferring one to the other. She could be letting her hair down — and maybe I thought so because that’s what one does at night (“Night falls”) or because taking the commas and parentheses out of a poem would similarly relax the language (“I remove the punctuation”) — or she could be taking the pins out of a drawer to put her hair up.


These readings remind me of the two impulses I saw when I first looked at these poems. Among the recurrent elements in the poems, the figure of Ariana is special, and therefore isolated. The poems sometimes work to keep her isolated, to protect her from being destroyed by time and habit. You don’t want her to be mistaken for something like a refrigerator magnet. But there’s also a contrary impulse to integrate her into the world of ordinary things. You don’t want her to suffer the fate of the neglected refrigerator magnet, but on the other hand you don’t want her to live in a world that lacks refrigerator magnets and pins, because that could get lonely.


BL: I see what you mean. The recombinatory machinery that makes even the most direct utterance feel constructed, feel comprised of materials that have a history in the poem, could be described as modeling a condition of “universal fungibility” (Adorno). The poems represent the struggle to represent particularity in an era of abstract exchange (“All these flowers look the same to me” (15)) and total commodification (I’ve come to understand/ April can be made into/ a thing. I guess that’s obvious now/ When every surface is/ a counter, it’s hard to eat” (64)). I can’t imagine it was an accident that “Ari” is in “April.” The poems often name their desire to isolate or rescue “Ari” from these forces, to make it the one transcendent and so stable term: “… The words are just there to confuse/ The censors, like mock eyes on the wing/ Except for Ari. No energy is lost if they collide/ The censors inside me, and that’s love” (56).


But you’re right — there’s a problem with this account. What would it mean to protect her from the real (militarized and commercialized) world? Lock her in a tower? Kill her? This way of describing the poems, despite its ostensibly critical vocabulary, feeds back into a kind of damsel in distress narrative. (I do think it’s important, though, that the poems don’t usually talk about rescuing Ari, they talk about rescuing “Ari” — about insisting on the specificity of that term and my relation to it, my ability to “speak of it”).


Sometimes the poems respond to these pressures by embracing their minority — by identifying small spaces (“the crawlspace/ under the war” (14)) and fugitive moments (“rain/ Which, when it first mixes with exhaust/ Smells like jasmine. These are the little/ Floating signatures that interest me” (44)) that are beneath the radar of the forces described above, but not outside them. In fact, “little” is a key (or at least common) word in the book — it appears, I think, more than twenty times. (This, too, recalls Oppen. See Eliot Weinberger’s “A Little Heap for George Oppen” for a beautiful catalog of instances in which Oppen uses the words “small” or “little” — it’s a large catalog, given how few words are in Oppen’s oeuvre, relatively speaking. Maybe Oppen was more of a model for me than I knew). The book also acknowledges that it is itself a small thing in time: “a little book for Ari/ built to sway” (12).


AK: You undertake a similar task of cataloguing experiences of beauty in Mean Free Path. There’s the beauty of scale, which in this case occurs in the opposition of the small (the “little book”) and the large (the skyscraper), although in many passages it is limited to the “little delays” without being measured against anything. I’ve already mentioned the special attention that your poems give to the beauty of the interrogative, which, according to the speaker, would be violated by propositional statements. Another motif that implies beauty is the musical. I am a little uncertain as to whether the musical motif is strictly beautiful, because the vocabulary is affective but not necessarily aesthetic. Your poems attribute extraordinary powers to “the voice of Nina Simone,” to another singer, Marvin Gaye, and to the composer Chopin, but it sounds almost as though you’re narrating heroic actions rather than aesthetic experiences.


The musical motif is a new one for you, I think. In your other books you find virtual analogues for your activity in painting and literature — and Cézanne and Tolstoy are part of the pattern here — but music doesn’t do as much work. Does this book aspire to the condition of music? Can you describe music or beauty into being?


BL: On one level, the musicality of the poems is both the solution to (and condition for the possibility of) the problem of the lines being out of order or belonging to several possible orders simultaneously. If the order of the lines is, in a sense, suspended — awaiting articulation by a reader — the musicality is a kind of centripetal force, keeping them from collapsing into a heap:


And that’s elegy. I know I am a felt
This is the form where my friend is buried
Effect of the things that I take personally
A gentle rippling across the social body
I know that I can’t touch her with the hand
That has touched money, I mean without
Several competing forms of closure
Irony, now warm and capable of
Decay on strings as we descend (56)


The long e that ripples across the stanza — elegy, buried, personally, rippling, body, money, competing, irony — establishes the sonic backdrop against which the several forms of closure compete. So sometimes the motif of the musical appears to describe the poems processes, as in the analogy here between the poetic line and the sound wave decaying on a string.


But you’re right that Nina Simone and Marvin Gaye aren’t just about an aesthetic experience. Or maybe it’s that I’m narrating an aspect of their music as heroic — Nina Simone’s low vocal range, almost baritone in moments, for instance, which produced what I’ve seen described as “an androgynous timbre.” And Marvin Gaye, who could span three octaves with his voice. Their powerful vocal range, how their voice crosses boundaries, is what’s celebrated in the poems: “A gender crossed/ A genre crossed on foot by Marvin Gaye” (25).


The word “music” most often appears in the book after “as” — “What if I made you hear this as music” is the first line of the second section of “Mean Free Path.” Years ago, when you and I were discussing Marjorie Welish’s work (in the exchange that appeared in No: a journal of the arts #3), you described hearing an Anthony Braxton concert:


AK: Last night I heard Anthony Braxton perform with a small group (piano, clarinet, guitar, saxophone). Before they started playing, he monkeyed around with the sound system to produce some really nasty feedback. Even he made a face when he heard what was coming out of the speakers — it wasn’t what he intended. Then he sort of shrugged and sat down and started playing saxophone. As if to say: “I can work with this.” “In fact, I’m going to make you hear this as music.”


As you see, I basically stole your language (Later I write: “I came here tonight to open you up / To interference heard as music” (43)). After our conversation, I became increasingly interested in that “as” — the duck-rabbit of experience that a certain kind of art enables. “The intricate evasions of as,” in the words of Stevens. The motif of hearing interference as music comes to stand for what we were discussing earlier — the capacity to will a particular mass of contingencies as if it cohered, could hold, which, in this book, is often equated with love.


So yes, the poems assert that you can describe music and beauty into being — through our capacity for re-description, for hearing (seeing, reading) as.


[1]  (Editor’s note:) Sir Philip Sidney’s long poem, a sonnet sequence written in hexameters some time in the 1580s, is now called Astrophil and Stella. Wikipedia reports that “There is no evidence that the title is authorial. It derives from the first printed text, the unauthorized quarto edition published by Thomas Newman (1591). Newman may also have been responsible for the consistent practice in early printings of calling the lover persona ‘Astrophel’. Ringler emended to ‘Astrophil’ on the grounds of etymological correctness, since the name is presumably based on Greek aster philein, and means ‘lover of a star’ (with stella meaning ‘star’); the ‘phil’ element alluding also, no doubt, to Sidney’s Christian name.”  — Duncan-Jones, Katherine, ed., Sir Philip Sidney: The Major Works including “Astrophil and Stella” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 357. It begins:

Louing in trueth, and fayne in verse my loue to show,
That she, deare Shee, might take som pleasure of my paine,
Pleasure might cause her reade, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pittie winne, and pity grace obtaine,
I sought fit wordes to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inuentions fine, her wits to entertaine,
Oft turning others leaues, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitfull showers vpon my sun-burnd brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Inuentions stay;
Inuention, Natures childe, fledde step-dame Studies blowes;
And others feet still seemde but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with childe to speak, and helplesse in my throwes,
Biting my trewand pen, beating myselfe for spite,
Fool, said my Muse to me, looke in thy heart, and write.

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner’s books of poetry are The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path, all published by Copper Canyon Press. He will begin teaching at Brooklyn College in the fall of 2010.

Aaron Kunin

Aaron Kunin

Aaron Kunin is the author of two poetry collections, Folding Ruler Star and The Sore Throat, and a novel, The Mandarin. He lives in Los Angeles.

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