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reviewed on April 5, 2024

I had thought Ben Lerner a poseur, a Brooklyn elitist with a penchant—like Michael Robbins, for instance—for glib social commentary, over-intellectual wordplay, and for publishing exclusively in the New York magazines.


I had thought Ben Lerner the kind of person who would use the word “poseur.”


I had thought I had read him all already—afternoons, silver spoons, etc.


Halfway through The Lights, though, I began to understand the so-called “Genius Grant” as more than hyperbole, despite that word’s connotations of an unthinking elicit-the-muse Romanticism, and despite the fact that the award has also fallen on rather generic geniuses.


Lerner is writing theoretical physics, examining in The Lights—as he has, in fact, throughout his career—those conditions in which language might exist most meaningfully as a social, economic, and cosmic force.  Steeped in Wittgenstein and Baudelaire, Lerner dreams across The Lights of a prosody capacious in its abstraction yet fine in its attention to detail, one that registers the abstract “shapes […] that structure experience” while noting at the same time the “migraine carpet” in the hallway at the MLA Hyatt—or, as Lerner describes this ambition, “I’m trying to imagine a lullaby that scales.” 


And Lerner’s imagination scales vertiginously in his fifth collection, telescoping from the terrestrial to the transmundane, from the worldly to the wondrous, in ways that do—the issue of “genius” notwithstanding—evoke the scaled-up sublimity of the Romantics.  In the poem “Auto-Tune,” for instance, the hip-hop audio processor functions as an object study in the ecological and existential perils born of what Lerner describes elsewhere as “late empire”:


            When you resynthesize the frequency domain of a voice, there is

                 audible “phase smearing,” a kind of vibrato,

            but instead of signifying the grain of a particular performance, the


            signifies the recuperation of particularity by the normative.


            I want to sing of the seismic activity deep in the earth and the

                 destruction of the earth for profit

            in a voice whose particularity has been extracted by machine.


How, Lerner asks, might serious critique be possible given the implication of language—and therefore imagination—in precisely those systems one might critique?  Where, Lerner asks, is my Archimedean lever? 


The question is unanswerable, of course, but for Lerner one starting point lies in grammar itself, disclosing in its structure the possibility of a world radically apart, detached from the present in both space and time.  In the future-perfect tense, for instance, Lerner finds a kind of proliferating parallel universe in which “[i]t’s raining now / it isn’t, or it’s raining in the near / future perfect when the poem is finished / or continuous, will have been completed.”  Reading Specimen Days, he imagines Whitman crossing the East River to Brooklyn when “the bridge was probably the tallest structure. / No, it wouldn’t be completed until, wouldn’t / have been completed yet, those are still / my favorite tenses.”  In a cultural moment in which—as I discovered last week—the American undergraduate can no longer read cursive nor diagram a sentence, Lerner evokes the wonder and possibility in the almost infinitely articulated structure that is language, uncovering in the mysteries of grammar and syntax, for instance, a kind of code with which to hack “the smooth flow of / information.”


These have been Lerner’s concerns throughout his career.  Of his debut The Lichtenberg Figures (Copper Canyon, 2004), which I encountered as a third-year MFA student in 2010, I wrote in a reading journal that he examines “how language, particularly verb tense, mediates experience.”  Of Mean Free Path (Copper Canyon, 2010), I wrote “meta-discourse about relation between language and ideology.”

I had, admittedly, just discovered theory.


Everything was "meta."  Everything, admittedly, was “ideology.”


Lerner is not a Marxist, but like Anne Winters and Joshua Clover he harbors a post-Marxist longing—usually ironized, or otherwise “mediated”—that the hacking or détournement of language might re-route contemporary history.  In The Lights, that détournement shows up in syntactical jump-cuts and deliberate disarticulations that short-circuit conventional language use, a tactic the limits of which Lerner acknowledges.  “I am trying to remember what it felt like,” he writes in “The Circuit,” “to believe / disjunction, non sequitur, injection / between sentences might constitute / meaningful struggle against the empire / typing away in my dorm.” 


Such strategies may be limited as a form of engagement, he concedes, but Lerner uses them to expose the intellectual bankruptcy of those figures who would pervert language in neo-Orwellian fashion:


            Is there a way we can do something like that by injection

            inside, or almost a cleaning, because you see

            it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous

            concept of the light, the way it kills

            it in one minute, that’s pretty

            powerful.  People should look into it


The slippage in syntax here—and one will recognize, I think, the parody—betrays significant slippages in thought which undermine the premise of language and of those social structures it facilitates.  When a word is stripped of its meanings, and when one is too ignorant and illiterate to recognize that fact, one storms the Capitol.


In The Lights, Lerner is most comfortable in long-form poems that move expansively in texture, orientation, and ambition.  Less impressive are the collection’s shorter and conventionally lineated poems, which feel as if Lerner asked ChatGPT to write a Gertrude Stein poem:


                 in Oakland, some

            old paintings.  Because like ash

            it scatters, I thought that I might sing

            Because it dies repeatedly

            in Mexico, penniless

            Penniless in Spain

            I thought that I might speak

            openly with you in photographs

            If I appear, then obviously

            I’m penniless […]


Likewise, the intellectual force in The Lights descends at moments into the ludic, Derridean language games which make someone like Stein seem as legible as Eric Carle:


            Words are the promise he can’t make

            in words without rendering them determinate

            and thereby breaking the promise because

            only when empty can we imagine assembling,

            not as ourselves, but as representatives

            of the selves he has asked us to dissolve


But The Lights is quite simply a magisterial collection, in the vastest sense of that word.  I had forgotten, when I picked it up, that I had loved Ben Lerner once—for the achievement of his intellect, for his layering of scene and situation, for a cosmic perspective tinged nonetheless with nostalgia.


The Lights has been praised in The New Yorker and The New York Times, but it seems as if—in the perennial gulf between MFA and NYC—no poets in the former camp are talking about Lerner anymore. 


I do not know why. 


He remains an original and important voice, a figure who reminds one, in every right way, of what the genre might achieve.

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