Ben Lerner’s Illuminations – Chicago Review of Books

Reading Ben Lerner’s new collection of poems, The Lights, I was reminded of a couplet from his 2004 debut, The Lichtenberg Figures: “I wish all difficult poems were profound. / Honk if you wish all difficult poems were profound.” With The Lights, Lerner has made good on this wish: for whatever difficulty the poems present, they more than reward in profundity.

The Lights is Lerner’s first standalone collection of poems since Mean Free Path in 2010. In the years between, Lerner published three novels, was named a MacArthur Genius, and became a father to two daughters. The Lights serves as a register of the changes not only within Lerner’s life but also within the world more broadly. Although undated, many of the poems can be placed by their references to “a pandemic,” “the virus,” and “airborne droplets.”

For this project, Lerner has turned to the form of the prose poem. It is an obvious choice–and a natural fit–given Lerner’s unique dexterity as a writer of verse, fiction, and criticism. Lerner makes full use of the form’s malleability, crafting several longer pieces in block prose as well as a number of shorter poems in lined verse. If a tension between the lyrical and analytical runs through Lerner’s work, the prose poem proves more than able to harmonize both. 

The subject matter in The Lights should be familiar to Lerner’s readers. He touches on relationships with friends and family, the study of science, and, as he writes in “Auto-Tune,” “the destruction of the earth for profit.” In characteristically self-referential fashion, much of the material appears to be mined from the writer’s own life. Although he retains his use of the first-person, he manages to make the pronoun more expansive than himself, as though it is a kind of common property. 

Lerner is, as usual, most perceptive and most persuasive when writing about the function of art in contemporary life. In “Untitled (Triptych),” the book’s standout piece, Lerner channels Ashbery à la “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” as he wanders around a gallery musing on the preservation of art; on the passage of time; on the way “the word / ‘angel’ can mean donor now.” The poem’s speaker, we learn, is “awaiting / test results” without cell service; Lerner departs from Ashbery in the extent to which he weaves in a personal commentary about his health and the impending birth of his second daughter. Drawing an association between Claes Oldenburg’s sculpture, Ice Bag–Scale C and the “scheduled C” of his daughter’s birth, Lerner makes a bid for a life in which art is close to hand. We visit the gallery, he seems to say, to find momentary reprieve from the fear of the “test results” and we can turn to art to find solace whatever the results may be. 

The Lights can be read even more explicitly as a meditation on the status of poetry–and the poet–at present. For Lerner, this is evidently a personal line of inquiry. In “The Readers,” for example, he reflects on his double-duty as poet and father. “I paid someone to care for them so I / could pattern these vowels” he writes with a palpable sense of confliction. Trying to square his obligations both to his craft and to his daughters, he decides that certain separation is necessary: “I keep // two notebooks, one where I write / for them in the half / hour before pickup.” 

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Lerner’s struggle to explain his craft to his daughter in “The Readers” scales up to the book’s concern for poetry’s increasingly marginal cultural position. Although he writes in “The Circuit” that he remembers what it “felt like to believe, disjunction, non sequitur, injection / between sentences might constitute / meaningful struggle against the empire,” it is clear that he no longer has any illusions about the capacity of poetry to effect social and political change. For Lerner, poetry—like all art—is a compromised exercise, or “leisure that is work / in houses the undocumented build, repair” as he writes in “The Dark Threw Patches Down Upon Me Also.”

Still, Lerner remains committed to his craft, and has offered The Lights as an exemplar of what poetry can reasonably hope to accomplish. In a telling passage from “The Media,” he addresses his reader, writing “you’ve probably felt that a spirit is at work in the world, or was, and that making it visible is the artist’s task or was.” His claim, then, is that the task of poetry is–if not to enlighten–then to shed a little light on the spirit of the poet’s own time. The Lights does so with humor, humanity, and an abundance of insight into the banal and profound alike. Indeed, it is a work of brilliance in that classic sense of the word. 

The Lights
By Ben Lerner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published September 5, 2023

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