Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Ben Lerner’s Angle of Yaw takes its title from the aeronautical term that describes the shifting of an airplane where its nose moves left and right while the plane continues on its line of travel. It is a motion that can best be appreciated when the viewer is positioned above or below the aircraft. The emphasis in this definition should be placed on the unusual perspective one must attain in order to make oneself aware of the plane’s motion.

In Angle of Yaw Lerner applies a similar perspective to the items and subjects he takes into consideration in the book. Mostly his concerns focus on the hyper-mediated American life out in the open, and mostly his jaunty meditations are brimming with absurdity and varying in tones from contempt to disgust to mild amusement.

He employs short, right-and-left-justified prose blocks throughout the majority of the book that frequently use the technique of assertion, negation and drift. One gets the feeling that one is witnessing a mind in argumentation mode even while that mind has moved on to other things. The argument is no longer the thing that matters. They strike this reader as prenatal thesis statements before they grow up to be video game addicts or abusers of public space.

The plethora of short prose poems are supported by three longer poems: “Begetting Stadia,” “Didactic Elegy,” and “Twenty-One Gun Salute For Ronald Reagan.”

These three poems all seem similarly poised on the edge of argument. “Begetting Stadia” seems more or less situated in a colossal sports stadium with the speaker making general references to sports writing and sport as spectacle. However, there are also allusions to advertising-speak in a way that reflects its overblown silliness:

“Sorcery cuts grease and glass like lightning”

General Disney gets clothes clean (with sorcery).
General Disney’s Chicken (with sorcery sauce).

It is not surprising though at the end of this poem the catastrophic has happened. The ersatz culture Lerner is critiquing through parody and not-so-thinly-veiled assault is caving in on itself. Occurring simultaneously is a kind of fleeing into nature, “We fled into the trees,” indicative of a reverse evolution, a return to a pre-primate position. Our heads cave in almost out of sympathy to the destroyed stadium.

But if we are only an extension of our stadium culture as Lerner is pointing this out, then in “Didactic Elegy” Lerner seems to be looking at the limited institutions of art and criticism itself. The somewhat tortured circumambulating logic of this dense, theory-speak-laden poem proceeds along the lines of Lerner’s patented assertion and negation:

It is no argument that the critic knows the artist personally.
Even if the artist is a known quantity, interpretation is an open struggle.
An artwork aware of this struggle is charged with negativity.
And yet naming negativity destroys it.
Can this process be made the subject of a poem?

but it can be made the object of a poem.

Several times Lerner uses the negation of a rhetorical question as a grounding point to push his discourse further from the core. These instances serve as structural elements within the piece.

Can this process be the subject of a poem?
No, but a poem may prefigure its own irrelevance.
. . . . .
Can an image be heroic?
No, but an image may proclaim its distance from the event it ostensibly depicts;

While there are many moments where the logic of this piece seems incredibly sound and one can follow the statement of assertion after assertion for a while, eventually the reader is led astray to such an extent that the author begins to undermine his claims. It is this distance from intention that Lerner locates in the first few lines:

I posit the critic to distance myself from intention, a despicable affect.
Yet intention is necessary if the field is to be understood as an economy.

What we have in “Didactic Elegy” is an economy of words, one where the repeated exchange of one phrase for another diminishes the value in terms of significance. The whole affair has lost its meaning while it goes through its semi-serious motions.

Later in the poem, though apparently eminently logical, it is the logic of the critic that seems most under assault:

For example, a syllogism subjected to a system of substitutions
allows us to apprehend the experience of logic
at logic’s expense.

One can hardly go very far in this poem without feeling the system of substitutions. The system of substitutions is the activity of the signifiers engaging in trade. The result is an economy that seems to be going nowhere, an economy that has become unhinged from its raison d’etre.

One seems to experience the effect of logic the same way one experiences the effect of an economy. Dizzying patterns of intention and exchange leave one wondering what it is all about, how one begins to plug in, how one begins to resolve the unresolvable.

Yet, the technique employed is only the subtext for the piece. In many of its more lucid moments, the poem wants to take on the image of the collapsing towers of 9/11. The speaker wants to articulate the deconstruction of this image. No longer are they objects of pity, horror and hero worship. The speaker wants to give this image a good vacuuming.

I think that we should draw a bold, black line across an otherwise white field
and keep discussion of its meaning to a minimum.
If we can close the event to further interpretation
we can keep the collapse from becoming a masterpiece.

One can only assume that the attempt to close the event to further interpretation is a kind of kidding. However, the serious nature of the rest of the piece almost has you going that it means what it says (even while it skirts the issue of intention).

In the final four lines Lerner asserts:

The meaninglessness of the drawing is therefore meaningful
and the failure to seek out value is heroic.
Is this all that remains of poetry?

Ignorance that sees itself is elegy.

The speaker takes shelter in the notion of meaninglessness and anti-heroic poses for poetry. The speaker then asks if this meaningless valueless void is all there is for poetry to inhabit. In a way this rhetorical question mirrors those that have come before, but instead of providing a “No” as negation, the speaker elegantly states that ignorance that sees itself is elegy.

If we are to take these words at face value, then the speaker is imploring the reader to acknowledge his/her own shortcomings in what he/she doesn’t know. This will be the most remarkable memorial that he/she could construct.

I’m not sure what this means for what remains of poetry, but it is likely that Lerner is saying that poetry that endeavors to eradicate its own ignorance is a form of marking the important events of the past. The way in which the voice in this piece is always pushing out to expand its boundaries reliably lives up to this call for action. The movement in the poem is that of a curious learner [hence the author’s surname?] incorporating more and more events and items into the mix, even at the expense of consistency and perfect order.

In “Twenty One Gun Salute to Ronald Reagan” Lerner creates 21 stanzas that follow the pattern of seven left-justified lines followed by two indented lines. The last two lines seem like rejoinders to the previous seven, but this is misleading as each single line often stands independent from the others. At the most two work in concert. The result is a pastiche of items that indicate the ghost of the 80s has come a-haunting. Many of these items date from the time Reagan was in office in the 80’s and suggest that the current attack-on-public-space originates from the Reagan era. Such nuggets include references to “Mr. Gorbachev,” the refusal to defend Poland from the east, the radio control tower telling a flight attendant in crisis to take deep breaths, proceeds from arms sales to the Contras, “Tear down this wall.”

Other favorites in the litany of items document “the contamination of the present” from the Reagan era:

An epistemology borrowed from game shows

Private-sector affluence, public-sector squalor

All I ask is that we stop executing the mentally handicapped.
But what if the mentally handicapped want to be executed?

Many of the other lines are taken from the running files of Lerner’s critique of America: American History and American Culture.

Why don’t we blame the sinking on Spain?

This is an obvious reference to the “sinking” of the Maine, which kicked off the Spanish-American War. Most respected scholars agree that the Maine was not attacked; therefore, there need not have been any escalation of violence on the part of the US. This line seems to hint at our current involvement in Iraq, but I think a missed opportunity to make it resonate with the Reagan era would have been to allude to the affair in Grenada. Why did the military go in there again? Was this a similarly manufactured crisis?

The general infatuation with “the show” and “the image” is what really riles Lerner in this poem. There are many references to emotions tried on for the purpose of effect. This is something that Reagan was expert at, and his prowess at such things has ushered in a new age of artificiality which some might call “the age of bullshit.” Lerner bristles at Reagan’s adeptness at sculpting a public and private persona. One suspects that Lerner does not feel it necessary to be similarly equipped. The public and the private persona merge into a singular “being in the world.”

But Lerner is not about to let himself off the hook either. The last line of the poem, “ Is this thing on?” could be the credo of every politician who has emerged in the age of mass media, but Lerner also seems to be suggesting that throughout the course of the poem he may have just been positioning himself to blab in front of the mic . . . and at the end he is poised to regret.

The bulk of Angle of Yaw is comprised of short prose poems that appear as short meditations on the confusion and absurdity of American life. These poems are the ones that are the liveliest in the book. Perhaps this is because they feel less like exploration of language and more like exploration of experience. If a Turing machine could have reproduced “Didactic Elegy” by employing some elaborate algorithm on a philosophically-rich text, then the short prose pieces would escape this fate mainly because there is a sense that the voice in those pieces could not have been written without attachment to a body. The body is felt largely in the skewed perspectives that crop up again and again within these pieces. The odd camera angles that Lerner holds makes the reader assume that this is not a disembodied voice.

Many of these short prose poems have been published in some of the most interesting literary periodicals around:

      Jacket 25
      Boston Review
      Common Knowledge [pdf]
      Beloit Poetry Journal
      Colorado Review [pdf]

I offer another here, my particular favorite.

If it hangs from the wall, it’s a painting. If it rests on the floor, it’s a sculpture. If it’s very big or very small, it’s conceptual. If it forms part of the wall, if it forms part of the floor, it’s architecture. If you have to buy a ticket, it’s modern. If you are already inside it and you have to pay to get out of it, it’s more modern. If you can be inside it without paying, it’s a trap. If it moves, it’s outmoded. If you have to look up, it’s religious. If you have to look down, it’s realistic. If it’s been sold, it’s site-specific. If, in order to see it, you have to pass through a metal detector, it’s public.

This piece seems to epitomize Lerner’s self-described project of examining the assault on public space and public speech. Here that examination of public space leads the reader to regard public space as pathetic. Upon first reading of this poem, this reader issued forth a painful guffaw.

This speaks to one of the extraordinary strengths of Lerner’s efforts with these short poems. They are observant, witty, critically very sharp and yet they amuse and entertain. Not an easy thing to do in an age where the can quickly become shrill.

It is more than a little bit of a relief to find that a book that has been so highly praised and has had such a high volume of attention paid to it to be deserving of such. I have not always been so generous to other high profile books in the last few years. Ben Lerner has set down a marker for twenty-something poets to aim their bocce balls at.

Stylistically, though, as I reflect on many of these pieces, I can’t help but notice the similarity to Rosmarie Waldrop’s poems in Reproduction of Profiles and Lawn of Excluded Middle. The continual degradation of the taut, formal statement is driven by the impulse to attach ever-more-disparate material to the machinery of a paragraph. One gets the feeling of being sent into a funhouse labyrinth of mirrors with an instrument that allows one to pick the high-hanging fruit.

My lone detracting comment is that I was not always able to follow the thread from the longer pieces through to the shorter pieces. For sure, there is the “theme” of the degradation of public space and public speech, but this isn’t always on the main stage in “Didactic Elegy” or “Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan.” Perhaps one doesn’t need such overarching order for a book. I kept going back and forth on that idea. In the end I wasn’t satisfied that the lack of order or inherent structure, the openness, if you will, was informed by the subject matter and technique of the poems themselves. Their critique seemed too canny, their style more controlled than one might expect them to be given the somewhat laissez-faire construction of the book. However, I should let Lerner have the last word on this in his interview with Kent Johnson in Jacket

The air war, the flight simulator, the crop circle, space travel, the marching band forming a flag at halftime for the omniscient Goodyear blimp — such ideologically rich phenomena recur throughout the book. Maybe their recurrence imposes an order on the poems ironically homologous to the cosmetic order such forms aspire to impose on us?

All is recurrence. Life is that non-linear system which is drained to basins of attraction through the system’s reiterated paths through phase space.

Another way to say this is that Lerner’s prose/verse systems repeatedly drain into chaos and despair and utter helplessness in the face of an American culture becoming unhinged from its public space and its language. And we’ll all go down laughing into its maw.

I concede that this may be the book’s intent as well, especially if one reads Yaw as a variant spelling of the Levantine god of chaos [I also concede that this may be my deep reading-into].

Let’s hope that Lerner finds more joy in his next offerings, even in the stupidity and absurdity that is often at the heart of American life. It’s a long dark road from your late twenties to the end.

For all its fine moments, there is no hint of a considered project for how to move through the ersatz culture we inhabit . . . unless one considers the project to be as suspicious as hell about all the signs and markers that are employed in it, to employ a sneer in order to maintain one’s health. To be fair, though, perhaps this should not be the agenda of a book as much as it is the agenda of a life.

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