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Apr/May 2006 Book Reviews

After the Lightning Strike

The Lichtenberg Figures
Ben Lerner
Copper Canyon Press (2004) 64 pages
ISBN 1-55659-211-6

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! When extremely high voltages are forced through dielectric/insulating materials the materials break down. The resulting trace, belying the paths along which the failure has occurred, is called a Lichtenberg figure (after the 18th century scientist who discovered the effect). A commonly cited example is the fractally repeating fern-like pattern that lightning leaves on whatever solid, non-conducting material it may strike, including the human being.

Ben Lerner's choice of the title The Lichtenberg Figures is only one of the inspired choices associated with his first volume of poetry. The 52 unrhymed, ear-rhythmed, 14-line "sonnets," then, that collectively and individually compose the volume, are the result of the extreme potentials of the world catastrophically forcing their way through the poet's defenses and imprinting on his psyche.

As if this weren't remarkable enough, the general outline of the imprint is not at all what might be expected. Yes, the details often speak to the emotional violence and chaos of the world around us, but Lerner is a poet to the core, as well, and The Lichtenberg Figures proves to be a book as much about the nearly impossible task of writing legitimate poetry. Foredoomed though this theme usually is, he not only succeeds but impresses time and again.

The terrible machinations of process are everywhere evident. There is the poet at work:

I sit in my hammock and whittle my rebus.
I feel disease spread through me like a theory.

The reversed simile of the second line speaks for the unusual range of tools that are brought to bear here. There is the motivation of the poet:

To forestall a suicide, I plant all manner
of night-blooming genera. I compose this preemptive elegy.

The poet realizes the need to start everything over in the face of the facts:

We must retract our offerings, burnt as they are.
We must recall our lines of verse like faulty tires.

To rive the psyche of Lerner is to rive the psyche of a poet. Every thought is passed through the fractured prism of his need to find expression.

The syllabus of the Dartmouth College writing program, from which Lerner has only recently emerged, plays a conspicuous role in this process in more ways than one. But, in another of the many surprises in this book, he finds ways to incorporate it in the wider mania. It is hard to call lines such as these "academic":

The thinkable goes sobbing door-to-door
in search of predicates accessible by foot.
But sense is much shorter in person
and retreats from chamber to antechamber to text.

Nevertheless, in lesser hands that is exactly what they would have been. Turning the abstractions of literary theory into concrete metaphor, without stumbling into allegory, is a difficult enough task that it is rarely attempted. Wordplay such as the double entendre (prosodic and a terre) of "accessible by foot," counterpoints the texts to various effects.

Even this poet, however, loses his balance on the high wire on occasion:

               And yes, of course, I sicken me,
with my endless and obvious examples
of the profound cultural mediocrity of the American bourgeoisie.

The reader who needs this road-sign is in the wrong place to begin with, the result being that a glaring cliché has been perpetrated with no redeeming benefit. It would be almost impossible to identify the "bourgeoisie" any longer. Virtually every critical school that persists in attacking it is battling with ghosts (or worse, chasing its own tail).

Such moments, however, are rare and the rapid-fire play of word and image that keeps Lerner's cynicism enticing, often hilarious, carries the reader past them almost without noticing. Sentiment is not avoided it is impossible:

I place a terminal raceme of fragrant funnel-shaped perianths
beside the mile marker where Orlando flipped his Honda.
I fuck his girlfriend and induce epistaxis in his homeboy.

This is just another in the rush of events upon which the mind has insufficient peace and time to ruminate. At best there is time enough to note the pathetic futility of even trying:

                              We were right.
Then we were terribly wrong. Such is the nature of California.

The poet's delight in the abstract vocabularies of science and grammar suits the theme of The Lichtenberg Figures. Irony is the specialty of the house.

As individual as Ben Lerner's voice is, the influences behind The Lichtenberg Figures are easily enough divined. His own hints actually seem the least compelling: fellow Kansas native Ronald Johnson and the early John Ashbery. His paeon to Vallejo (surely for his Trilce), however, seems to go more to the core. Certainly, Rimbaud comes immediately to mind, and Dylan, although the Information Age context stretches their tropes to the limit. There are touches that are reminiscent of certain modes in Creeley, snatches surely plagiarized from the Cliff Notes edition of The Elements of Style played backwards, subtonic reverberations of certain eastern Pygmy tribal chants and heavily punk-influenced alternative music, not necessarily in that order. (It is possible that the affinity with the tribal chants is entirely coincidental.) There can also be little doubt that the ghost of Hunter Thompson haunts certain lines. This pup has gone horribly off the beaten path as the result of imbibing virtually every classic of literary perversity of our times and numerous historical periods the reader being the sole beneficiary.

In fine, any of our august septuagenarian poets, laved in volumes and accolades, would be envious to have The Lichtenberg Figures as their third best volume. Generally, I would be embarrassed to lavish this kind of praise on a first book, the kick-backs for lauding such volumes being so pitifully small, but, then, my reviews are actually written by my astonishingly beautiful, grossly underpaid, genius assistant Clarissa, and I can no longer even be bothered to break away from scouring the catalogues for anatomically correct inflatable plastic dolls in the shape of various common barnyard animals to so much as proof the copy before she sends it out.

 

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