Online Edition: Spring 2005

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The Lichtenberg Figures

Ben Lerner

Copper Canyon Press ($14)

by Cindra Halm

Let's say the poetic mind is a storm chamber. Because of erratic winds, stuff blows in from beyond the usual waking sensibility; as in disturbed sleep, neighbors and friends end up next to famous historical figures; parts of speech collide with images of herbs and snow, literary theory with personal and collective wars. There's an electrical charge in the air--nerves replicate and repetitions frame, fray. When lightning surges, so does perception, singeing insight into matter. Hold on to your hat but not to your tongue: language here is at once astir and attached, both turbulent and still.

This is the conceit and the method of Ben Lerner's first book of poems, aptly named The Lichtenberg Figures after the branching patterns that sometimes form after lightning strikes. Indeed, each of the 52 (one for each week of the year?) poems "flash," most consistently in the way that they crack open time to express an astonishing inclusivity, and for the ways in which they crackle with paradoxically intelligent and illogical connotations. The book as a whole serves as both a critique and a catalogue of one mind's study of disjunctions as well as cohesions; of contemporary culture's inflamatory obsessions; and of the academic canon's absurdly serious or seriously absurd theories and constructs. As such, the shifting tones of humor, irony, meta-poetic schmaltz, poignancy, neurosis, wonder, bombast, irreverency, and hope, create infinite shades of tempest.

If surprise is the necessary, if unpredictable, twin of storm, then delight is the darling child of surprise. There is no lack of startling, multivalent, or pointed offspring on which the engaged reader will dote:

Now to defend a bit of structure: beeline, skyline, dateline, saline—
now to torch your effluent shanty
so the small rain down can rain. I'm so Eastern that my Ph.D.
has edible tubers, my heart a hibachi oiled with rapeseed. I'm so Western
          that my Ph.D

can bang and bank all ball game, bringing the crowd to its feet
and the critics to their knees. Politically speaking, I'm kind of an animal.

Simultaneously dissecting and advancing the histories of artistic forms, political and social constructs, and human emotions, Lerner employs aphorism, repetition, progression, digression, reversals, and even outright nonsense to confuse or eradicate boundaries between polarities (imagistic, thematic, etc.). The resultant no-man's-land is not neutrality but rather a charged minefield. Some lines, sections, and/or whole poems read as practical proverbs or troubled surreal confessions, others as mysterious zen koans, still others as self-aware deaths commenting from beyond the page, the grave, and even the world of duality. The need to shatter belief systems balances, or cancels, the propensity to sermonize—or vice-versa. Hyperawareness of life's contradictions exhibits as keen sensitivity and also as flat affect, a juxtaposition exacerbated by a dominant style of declarative sentences, end-stopped lines, and present tense awareness. Who can really tell where one belongs in the shifting landscapes of any weather, fad, class, or zeitgeist? It's the prevalent consumer-culture's aesthetic which infiltrates all others: anxiety.

I attend a class for mouth-to-mouth, a class for hand-to-hand.
I can no longer distinguish between combat and resuscitation.
I could revive my victims. I could kill a man
with a maneuver designed to clear the throat of food. Tonight, the moon

sulks at apogee. A bitch complains to the polestar. An enemy
fills a Ping-Pong ball with Drano and drops it in the gas tank of my car.

It should be noted that each of the poems of The Lichtenberg Figures contains 14 lines, with the exception of one which has 15 lines (a loose thread? Rebel energy? A scar-charm against standardization's inflexibility?). Even though formal meter and rhyme don't play out here, the sameness of line count and the tradition behind the sonnet contribute to a consistency of felt weight throughout. Comfort? Complacency? Gravity? Rendering the structure automatic and therefore invisible so as to highlight other aspects? Nodding to the world of forms by participation even when dismantling that world? The reader alert to nuances will feel them all. Likewise, unencumbered by individual titles and section divisions, the poems either shine with individual charisma and with the collective sparkle of their accrued light, or they offer the restlessness of week following sameness of week. Somehow, the drama of The Lichtenberg Figures figures out how to play them, and play with them, both.

Images and themes are the stars that shine most obviously in the sky or on the stage, but they need a surrounding cosmos, a unifying energy, to hold them as a pattern. The “about” of this book (as in, “what's the book about?”) is something like the necessary and also futile use of references. It is only by comparing that we know things, and that we can never know things, really. Every poem dramatizes language's attempt to be more than itself; each poem's associations, lists, questions, and echoes demonstrate that there is always another word, another answer, another fleeting seared and branching possibility. Like the human mind's ability to imagine. Like the human need for limits like 14 lines or 52 weeks, lest we go crazy from expansion or from boredom.

How then to structure a premise like a promise?
.............................................................
How then to justify our margins?

One of poetry's achievements, if it's lucky, is to forge connections among neurons by creating new pathways, memorable patterns, and compelling figures. The Lichtenberg Figures is lucky. And skillfull. And, especially for a first volume, brilliant in its flashes.

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Spring 2005 Table of Contents