The Lights Brian Dillon

Twenty-six poems by Ben Lerner grapple with the language of poetics at the intersection of contemporary private life and political darkness.

The Lights: Poems, by Ben Lerner, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 117 pages, $26

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“Suppose that we hit the body / with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet / or just very powerful light, supposing you brought the light / inside the body, which you can do either / through the skin or in some other way.” Indeed, what then? Absent some free-form asides to officials about ostensible testing of his mooted light cure for Covid, these are the words notoriously uttered by Donald Trump on April 23, 2020, and swiftly abjured by panicked health professionals. (The matter of the intravenous bleach was more alarming still.) They are also the opening lines of Ben Lerner’s “The Circuit,” which concentrates the main topics of his new collection The Lights—poetic form, private life, and the possibility of an American politics beyond present darkness. (“Imagine a song, she said, that gives voice to people’s anger.”) Despite himself, Trump conjures in metaphor a transformation straight from the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. He sounds like Henry Vaughan: They are all gone into the world of light!

The Lights gathers twenty-six poems, among them nine prose poems, written over a period of fifteen years and previously published in diverse magazines and journals. Four have also appeared in the UK in No Art, a volume that reprints Lerner’s first three books of verse. No surprise—especially for readers of those earlier collections and his three novels, or his essay-length Hatred of Poetry—that this volume should sweep easily from found gobbets of debased political rhetoric, through lyric reflection on his young daughters’ adventures in language, to Lerner’s anxieties about the place of poetry in contemporary America (especially poetry by a middle-aged white man who cannot escape or deny his debt to the likes of Walt Whitman). The Lights, in other words, is as allusive and complex, but also as engaged and engaging, as we’ve come to expect from Lerner’s work. Related questions: Does it move beyond its (Trumpian and pandemic) era? Or advance past Lerner’s earlier formal ambitions?

The first thing to note is that Lerner’s axes of approach to the political are necessarily skewed by what Walter Benjamin called the fascist aestheticization of politics. In a world where public image and phrase are no longer merely bullish or blandishing tools of power, but instead instruments for inciting chaos and uncertainty, what role for the poetic, with its admixture of contained form and uncontained ambiguity? The aestheticization in question no longer appeals to classical beauty or sentimental nationalism—instead, its methods are performed iconoclasm and disruption. In “The Circuit” Lerner unravels the cliché about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose: “you campaign / in conventional verse, but govern in avant-garde / pieties regarding pulling it apart.” Trump’s favored style of untraceable threat—“There are people looking into it”—is an unwitting parody of experimental aesthetics, an activity detaching itself from stable subjects or verifiable outcomes. A vexing problem for any artist today: How, or where, to find formal or material resources that don’t replicate again this politics of reckless wager and verbal thuggery?

Lerner goes looking, or listening, in what might seem rarefied places, or not quite esoteric enough, as for example the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some of the most compelling poems in The Lights assemble themselves around scenes of regarding works of art. In “Untitled (Triptych)”—which is also about an anxious interlude of awaiting medical test results—there are the wealthy donors, with their glibly pious expressions, who attend biblical scenes in medieval paintings. The Virgin Mary, subject to an importunate annunciation. The saints with their haloes. In all these cases, something or someone is flung forward in time: “You can’t see / you own halo, it hails from the future”—that is, from the time of your martyrdom or the later moment of your canonization. The auras of the saint and the Virgin: these are openings or invitations to the future, while the expensive glow of the donor is only certainty about what his money will buy him (except it won’t). “In the future there were tenses / to express what it’s like to be alive today”—this temporal confusion is the hazard or gamble of art.

Alongside paintings and sculptures, The Lights frequently pays attention to music, to sound, and to voices—including the poet’s own, which seems troubled by the very confidence of utterance that his discipline demands. In “The Media” Lerner presents himself in the midst of ambulatory Wordsworthian composition, but his song is ruefully mediated by voice memo: “Walking at dusk through the long meadow, recording this on my phone, that’s my job, as old as soldiery, the hills, the soldered hills where current flows, green current.” Echoing a passage in The Hatred of Poetry, he writes in “Auto-Tune” that the inaugural gesture of poetry was not a famous dream of the Anglo-Saxon Caedmon, but rather his reluctance to speak or sing out loud in the first place. Lerner wants to write or speak in the weird register of auto-tune’s overcorrection: “In a voice without portamento, a voice in which the human is felt as a loss, I want to sing the permanent wars of profit.”

Given the decade and a half over which they were written, and the ways they touch on concerns of Lerner’s fiction and nonfiction, there isn’t quite a sense that the pieces in The Lights offer any new formal or thematic answers to the problem of what poetic speech means now in a degraded or defunct American polis. Rather, there’s a sense here of meditations ongoing, a voice drawing from everyday life and art (“there are real forces at work in the popular”), from centuries of poetic precursors, from his daughters’ questions about what he does all day. And a super-articulate reckoning with what all poets, singers, and artists know in their hearts: the work that would be most open to the future, most filled with potential, would be one that comes closest to silence, to nonsense, whispery meridian response, mere room tone.

Brian Dillon’s Affinities, Suppose a Sentence, and Essayism are published by New York Review Books. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s album Hounds of Love, and another on aesthetic education.

Twenty-six poems by Ben Lerner grapple with the language of poetics at the intersection of contemporary private life and political darkness.
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