Hugh Foley

Light Verse


The Lights, Ben Lerner, Granta Books, 2023, pp.128, £12.99

Chariot, Timothy Donnelly, Wave Books, 2023, pp.112, £15.00

One of the world’s richest and least thoughtful men often says that he hopes to use his obscene wealth to ‘extend the light of consciousness to the stars’. There’s a certain kind of poetry in that. Bad poetry. There’s nothing wrong with identifying light with thought; it’s actually very hard not to. Just look at how we name historical eras. But the stars already have light. And in that disregard for the ‘vehicle’ of the metaphor (the light which consciousness is like), you can see a kind of arrogance, not so much one man’s personal arrogance as an impersonal one – historical eras echoing through him. Consciousness becomes thoughtless. It disregards the world. Is it any wonder then that we wreck our actual home and dream of fleeing for Mars?

But bad poetry might get us closer to the truth of things than good poetry. In his essay, The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner made that case with admirable severity. All poems fail. They follow what the poet-theorist Allen Grossman, one of Lerner’s key influences, calls a ‘bitter logic’, wherein, as Lerner puts it, ‘the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms’ – by what Grossman calls ‘the resistance of the materials’. You want to imagine the unimaginable, but by working with words you’re working with what already exists. Words belong to society and history. The world as it is.

Elon Musk’s failure to master the materials of language while seeking to dominate the stars is useful for making visible the limits of our imagination, not just his own. It discloses our world, maybe better than a well-made poem could. It is the world in which those who most wreck the planet do so, not so much for their own sake as for the logic they serve. Call it the light of consciousness.

That a glitch in language use might show us a truth about the world has always been the hope that Lerner’s own, emphatically not-bad, poetry turns on. Glitches show us how things are, but also what stops us from imagining them as otherwise. He wants us ‘to experience mediacy immediately’, as he wrote in Angle of Yaw, to see to the edge of the world, the frame of the painting we’re inside.

Those who only know Lerner as a novelist will have seen his system most clearly articulated in The Topeka School, where the rise (in the nineties) of a rapid-fire bullshit debating technique called ‘the spread’ prefigures a decline in political rhetoric, culminating in the imitable idiolect of the last US president. Poet, high school debate champ and Donald Trump all follow a kind of formal imperative to bullshit. They can’t help themselves; the medium overmasters them ‘as the regimes of meaning collapse into the spread’.

But if we remember that this medium is not just a medium but a gathering of people, a shared world made of ‘vibrating columns of air’, then we might see flashes of the power we have together to make a new world. Lerner’s poems return again and again to this language that overmasters us, shows us the world-making power of collectivity in perverted forms.

In The Lights, his fourth collection, as you might guess, the figure Lerner resorts to most often while trying to glimpse the better world in the world as it is, radiant with calamity, is light. And not just any light; Lerner loves the kinds of light that ‘flicker’ (a favourite word) between the inhuman beyond and the merely man-made, whether sublime or stupid or both. Light is what makes sight possible, it’s what gives us the world, but in flashes we can also see the medium itself. When we attend to light in Lerner, we are attending to the things that we take for granted, which make our experience of the world as it is possible, but which we might one day change.

As he describes Victor Serge in ‘Contre Jour’, with a phrase itself beautifully wavering between sublime and ridiculous, Lerner is ‘a fan of light’. Indeed, he (or a speaker) tells us, he named one of his daughters after it. Reading this book, we are constantly struck by lights that belong to this world, but seem not to. We get inter alia, UFOs, ‘mysterious red lights across the bridge’, the ‘afterimage of Byzantine gold leaf dissolving in the trees’, the ‘green flash’ of sunset and halos in paintings. Even ‘a neighbor’s vape pen signalling in the dark’ speaks of the mysteries inside the mundane.

In ‘The Theory’, one of a number of prose poems, Lerner describes himself giving one of a number of extemporised lectures on abstract art:

Abstraction is important, abstraction is necessary, otherwise we can’t perceive shapes —an ellipse, a triangle—that
structure experience, provide its lattice, but she can be cold, the way the stars are cold, beautiful cold light that bends
around the sun, changing the star’s apparent location, the problem of measurement, prosody, the ancient dream of
conspiring (the car beeped and the lights flashed twice as I unlocked it…

Light, abstraction, prosody (rhythm etc.), conspiring (breathing together) – the forces that structure experience: glimpses of these, like the sky wobbling in puddles, are what poetry is for.

This indeterminate figure of light allows Lerner to demonstrate, again and again, his particular brilliance. The restrained beauty and the deadpan humour of his poetry have both been, for the most part, enriched by his embrace of narrative since he published his last full collection in 2011. The prose poems especially, which resemble short stories more than they do his previous efforts in Angle of Yaw (still my favourite of his books), are wonderful. The poetry in them comes in little moments of disjunction within the prose, phrases left to stand on their own like ruined monuments, flashes of other possibilities.

But the omnicompetence of the mature Lerner, able to turn on a dime between story and song, doesn’t always seem to be a net gain. In fact, neither does the maturity. In ‘The Circuit’, Lerner blurs the voice of Donald Trump, on the possibility of curing Covid-19 with light:

Suppose that we hit the body
with a tremendous, whether its ultraviolet
or just very powerful light, supposing you brought the light inside the body…

The poem starts by playing it admirably straight. Lerner takes both Trump’s dotard musings and then Havana syndrome – the strange illness suffered by CIA operatives who convinced themselves they were victims of an ultrasonic weapon – seriously enough that the absurdity becomes profound. At its heart is the beauty imaginable in a shared vulnerability to sound – which is speech. It’s a standard rehearsal of the Lerner topos, and the themes of The Topeka School.

And yet, for me, something strikes a false note. Eventually, Lerner swerves from Trump and the CIA to reminisce, adjusting into something like the perspective of Lerner the novelist:

I am trying to remember what it felt like to believe disjunction, non sequitur, injection
between sentences might constitute
meaningful struggle against the empire

The narrative is a classic one of outgrowing naivety. And yet, the implied resemblance between political bullshit and avant-garde poetry was always in the work – twenty years ago, he wrote:

In the early ’00s, my concern with abstraction culminated in a series of public exhalations.
I was praised for my use of repetition. But, alas, my work was understood.

Then the towers collapsed
and antimissile missiles tracked the night sky with ellipses.

I decided that what we needed was a plain style,
not more condoms stuffed with chocolate frosting.

The pun on ‘plane’ here does more than all of the gentle self-mockery in ‘The Circuit’ to yoke together political blather and the overweening hopes of avant- garde art.
‘The Circuit’ seems to express the desire to be seen responding, doing the work, without doing it. If Trumpism’s easy marriage of non-sequitur and racist backlash really demanded Lerner rethink his poetics, they ought to be rethought, not gently ironised. Several times in the book, in moments that flicker between handwringing and jokiness, Lerner suggests that his dedication to seeing right to the edge of the world rather than examining particular injustices is a sign of privileged detachment. The title poem, ‘The Lights’, for example, says that ‘the white poets might be trying to escape’ when they dream of space – a gesture that feels as perfunctory as the average institutional land acknowledgement.
By grounding the kinds of thoughts Lerner has about what binds everyone together in the pointedly privileged person, the prose fiction leavens the totalising gestures of the poems. This arguably made his turn to ‘autofiction’ legible as an artful gesture of humility. But turning Lerner’s transcendental claims into fictional ones also robs the poems of one source of their power. And does the humility do any more to ‘struggle against empire’ than non sequitur does? The Lights, I should stress, is a moving, magisterial gathering of the work of a decade. But given Lerner’s obsession with the transpersonal power of poetry, it sometimes seems a shame to see him demonstrating personal growth.
A different attempt to stay humble while channelling the idiot grandeur of the present can be seen in the recent work of Timothy Donnelly. A generational peer of Lerner’s, sharing many concerns, and major influence (in John Ashbery), Donnelly offers poetic solutions that seem to me to do better at bringing the impersonal, universal down to earth. His last book, The Problem of the Many, was an attempt to go all out, addressing the vast scale of environmental devastation, modern capitalist trade flows and the history of extraction, domination and empire stretching back centuries, while also connecting that to the poet’s comparative privilege. As with Lerner’s book, that latter element sometimes dragged the weaker poems down into the mere realm of liberal handwringing.
But in Chariot, his fourth collection, you can see a distillation, a tightening focus. Each poem is twenty lines long, in five stanzas of four lines, and they each turn on a single theme. Hardly anyone other than Donnelly is allowed into the poems, but you still see to the edges of the world, because Donnelly identifies with and turns against the power of thought in thrillingly tight corners, in ways that, I think, go further than Lerner in reflecting the bad forms of collective life we experience, and utopian hopes for better ones.
You can see it in how he handles Lerner’s own master figure, the lights. Here are the final four stanzas of Donnelly’s ‘Night of the Gowanus’, a meditation on the lights of traffic at night reflected in Brooklyn’s Gowanus canal:

Streams of tail- and headlights on the curve of the viaduct

….outlined like clip art with the peach tones of sunset under it
and above it a sky’s ombré of icicle-to coal-blue—where a faint few
….stars think things over—refer to motorists

as iridescent geometrics on the rippling face of the water
….refer to the coal tar dumped into it by industry for
over a century, sludging the canal bottom in thicknesses equal
….to twenty mattresses piled one on top the other, as in a fairy tale

of sensitivity, except these mattresses are irrevocably toxic,
….and the princess is a phantasm of oyster shells
and auto parts, parts likewise of bodies disappeared here in the dark,
….lives grieved without finality as the canal itself is grieving

the tidal inlet of bright creeks intricate with water life
….it used to be before Dutch settlers perplexed it into property
from the Lenape, humanity again done in by its own traffic,
….confusing its light with stars, to whom such details matter nothing.

Donnelly’s poem plays with logical identities, as metaphors always do, but makes it explicit by using the framing of verbal reasoning tests: X refers to Y as Z refers to A. In this case, one kind of light (car ‘tail and headlights’) is a sign of human activity, which is of the same kind as pollution. The light we actually do send to the stars not only blocks them from our view (light pollution), but is usually accompanied by other pollutants. None of that irony matters to the stars, but it does matter to us, on our polluted earth. Still, at the same time as this logical exposition of the damage done under the sign of light, which becomes also a sign of ‘traffic’ in its other senses (trade), Donnelly can also be found luxuriating in the man-made light whose meaning he makes mercilessly clear. The poet’s capacity to make the many-sidedness of things visible, to make the comparisons take on a life of their own, feel in some sense life-affirming, as light in the darkness often is.
In the best poems in Chariot, he finds a way of making the tendency of thought to overwrite its objects – the gravitational force that masters Elon Musk’s metaphor – work against itself to let life in. The baroque comparisons and equally baroque syntax that those who’ve read Donnelly’s previous work have come to expect find all sorts of ways of repurposing trash, material and linguistic, to surprising and beautiful ends. In spite of all that excess, nothing is wasted.
Like Lerner, Donnelly is interested in making language glitch, but he turns these glitches back into rhythm. Bathos is recuperated into the larger order of the poet’s individual thoughts, which just as quickly collapse back into bathos, until you see the bigger pattern, something I find exhilarating, as in ‘The Light’:

—it puts you in your place, the light

put me in my place. Light on the surface of East River in March,
…..light July through October, light at noon on slopes of undulations
pearling for a moment till it gleams up on the peaks, the light
… melon ribbon, light dribbling from the mouth of a mythical

beast like Blake’s dragon, but in effect, closer to a nebulous
…..walrus made of fire. I am the nebulous walrus made of fire. I walk
among you unrecognized but laughing. There is so much beauty
…..left to see in this world. And I became what I am now to see it.

In poem after poem, Donnelly offers an illustration of the hardest task of the poet, to find a way of making both the degraded waterways and degraded commons of language into something we can admire, something that holds the light in it.

Hugh Foley’s poetry and criticism have appeared in The Poetry Review, The White Review, Poetry London, PN Review and The Rialto, among other places. He is the author of an academic work on American poetry (Lyric and Liberalism in the Age of American Empire) and several study guides for children. He writes a Substack newsletter, Useless Concentration.

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