The versatile little symbol in the lower right corner of your keyboard goes by many names: forward slash, division slash, solidus or stroke, depending on how you use it. When it moonlights as a line-break in a poem or song in quotation, it’s called a virgule — after the Latin word for twig, virgula, sometimes Anglicized in British usage as a “virgil.” If you were to quote the end of the poem “Index of Themes” from Ben Lerner’s “The Lights” in a book review, for example, you would add a virgule to mark the enjambment: “prose/poems.”
“Prose/poems” could serve as a subtitle for “The Lights,” and for all of Lerner’s writing across genres: poetry, novels, essays and art books. The / is a figure for possibility itself; it can also stand in for the grammatical conjunction “or.” (The title of Soren Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or” may be parsed as “either or or” if you’re a typesetter or a metaphysician.) The intersection of enjambment and existential alternatives isn’t lost on Lerner; in an earlier book called “The Hatred of Poetry,” he floats an otherworldly slant rhyme for “virgule”:
… “virga,” my favorite kind of weather: streaks of water or ice particles trailing from a cloud that evaporate before they reach the ground. It’s a rainfall that never quite closes the gap between heaven and earth.
Like vanishing rainfall, the slanting line in “prose/poems” discloses — but “never quite closes” — the passage between earth and heaven, the real and the imaginary, and/or life and art.
Readers of Lerner’s recent novels may view “The Lights” as a return to poetry. Lerner might observe that he never left. “The Lights” feels like a continuation of this writer’s “dream of prose in poetry, a long dream of waking.” The speaker of Lerner’s poems often sounds like a successful author living in New York today: He complains of poor reception in the medieval wing at the Met, worries that his therapist will take note of an unwanted erection and, on a writer’s retreat in Marfa, quips: “what I need/is a residency within the residency, then/I could return refreshed to this one.” Bemused, affable and almost ecstatically self-conscious, this literary persona is given to phrases like “among the most beautiful phrases/in” or “there is nothing more beautiful than” even as he marvels: “How pretentious/to be alive now.”
But the speaker of “The Lights” turns out to be many speakers, one of whom can’t help shaking his head at the literary pretensions of an earlier self:
I am trying to remember what it felt like to believe
disjunction, non sequitur, injection
between sentences might constitute
meaningful struggle against the empire
typing away in my dorm.
The speaker of another poem, “The Camperdown Elm,” never left that dorm room’s story line; this alternate identity continues to make an art of discontinuity in the present:
Our children do not mean
Their numbers are up, the fireflies
To kill them when they cup
Around the soft bodies, light
Music softens features
The way a mild solvent
Softens the acrylic, yellowing in time.
The multiple literary personalities of “The Lights” carry on an internal debate tournament about what poems ought to do or be. “Part of me wants to say there is a mock-oratorical mode capable of vitalizing critical agency,” Lerner writes, “and part of me/wants to praise the maple’s winged samaras.” Toward the book’s conclusion, he dreams up yet another kind of poem — and struggle against empire — to come:
All I need my song to one day say is you are my princess and my father and you’re breathing glass, soft glass that links you, that rain outside of time is mist, is glass, and I want you to fan out and take the bridges.
Walt Whitman once claimed to “contain multitudes.” Lerner’s lucid dreamer wants a song that will mobilize those multitudes. Whitman makes multiple appearances throughout “The Lights”; in homage to the poet of internal contradictions, Lerner reads “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” as an artwork that never quite closes the gap between heaven and earth: “It’s among the greatest poems and fails/because it wants to become real and can/only become prose.” If only for a moment, Whitman’s poem, like poetry writ large, “wants to become real and can,” when you read between Lerner’s lines.
“Character” is another word for typographical symbols like / or i. Symbol and character, verse and conversation, song and story coexist in the prose/poems of “The Lights.” Lerner populates his poetry with fictions like Emma, Rose, Marcela, Lucía, Ari, Bob Lolly and Ben. Some of his speakers have no names — and others, many. They tell stories, console one another and depart like visitors in a dream. A politician advises scientists to “hit the body/with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet/or just very powerful light”; “when you look into the box,” a recovering meth addict explains of quantum physics, “the cat is supposed to be alive or dead, not alive and dead”; a child insists the book tucked under her pillow at bedtime will “help me dream.”
It takes a poet to invent characters who argue that “the voice must be sung into existence.” It takes a novelist to honor so many perspectives, histories and intimacies in one book. “Which of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose?” Charles Baudelaire asked over a century ago. The poet/novelist of “The Lights” enlarges Baudelaire’s experiments in prose poetry into a multistory dream house for contemporary American readers.
An oblique stroke divides life into “either/or,” but it can also conjoin things as an inclusive “and”: poet/novelist, symbol/character. “The Lights” reminds us that we are one and many: princess and father, “everyone in the dream” and “glass, soft glass bending in long meadows.”
Princess/father/everyone/glass. You could go on like this forever.
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