A Crucible of the Human Spirit Guy
By Ben Lerner
Coffee House Press, 2011
Ben Lerner is a poet of the first rank among those at work today. His 2010 volume Mean Free Path put relentless discipline and contrapuntal grace in the service of an expansive vision of war, surveillance, personal relationships, and the strain on language gripped in the vise of commercial and political argot. It is, to my mind, the best rendering available of what it feels like to be a young, bookish, liberal American right now; it produces the uncanny illusion, if you meet the preceding categories, that it was written both to you and by you—a wiretap straight to the brain.
To Mean Free Path and two earlier volumes of poetry, The Lichtenberg Figures and Angle of Yaw, Lerner now adds his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. The novel follows the young poet Adam Gordon as he relates his inability to experience aesthetic, romantic, or political life without placing a veil, or an outright wall, between him and the rest of the world. This “feel of not to feel it,” as Keats put it, coincides with Adam’s undertaking of a fellowship in Madrid based on a bogus research proposal on the Spanish Civil War, and the subsequent dodging of this and other obligations – pecuniary, civic, sexual – constitutes much of the novel’s plot.
One of Adam’s sources of tenuous intimacy is a young madrileña named Isabel, whom he describes as “always wrapping or unwrapping her hair or body in some sort of cloth, winding or unwinding a shawl or scarf…. I couldn’t picture her standing still, fully dressed or undressed, but only in the process of gracefully entangling or disentangling herself from fabric.” But his observation is as much a self-portrait as a projection: Adam is continuously exchanging one form of outer muffler for another – a joint for a drink for a tranquilizer – or shifting the area being protected: when emotionally vulnerable, there’s drugs; when his intellectual pride is attacked, there’s the retreat into his non-native-speaker status, as he vigorously tries to convince the Spaniards he encounters that the language barrier is the only thing preventing them from apprehending his sensitivity and genius.
The passages describing Adam’s language barrier – of which he is alternately the prisoner and the architect, trapped or sheltered by it – are the most interesting, and often funny, parts of the book. Infinitives and abstract nouns, replete with obvious cognates to English words, are the easiest part of learning a Romance language; they also make for the most gnomic and self-serious sentiments, as when Adam holds forth at the Prado for Isabel’s benefit:
I would say, To write with sculpture –, To think the vertical –, To refute a century of shadow –, etc., and watch her mouth the phrase to herself, investing it with all possible resonances, then reapplying it to canvas. Of course we engaged in our share of incidental talk, but our most intense and ostensibly intimate interactions were the effect of her imbuing my silences, the gaps out of which my Spanish was primarily composed, with tremendous intellectual and aesthetic force.
Adam’s verbal lacunae spare him the work of following a thought to its conclusion; he leaves that to the diligent Isabel, who at first seems to give his fragments the benefit of the doubt:
Isabel assigned profound meaning, assigned a plurality of possible profound meanings, to my fragmentary speech, intuiting from those fragments depths of insight and latent eloquence, and because she projected what she thought she discovered, she experienced, I liked to think, an intense affinity for the workings of my mind.
Adam’s misadventures with his genuinely bad Spanish early in the book (later in the novel he only fakes non-fluency in order to seem oracular, or poetical, or unavailable) reach a comedic climax in a long and witty set piece in which Adam and a pseudo-soulful hack poet named Tomás give a reading at an art gallery. It turns out, of course, that truly bad art is its own universal language. When Tomás reads his poem “Sea,” Adam finds:
To my surprise this poem was totally intelligible to me, an Esperanto of clichés: waves, heart, pain, moon, breasts, beach, emptiness, etc.; the delivery was so cloying the thought crossed my mind that his apparent earnestness might be parody. But then he read his second poem, “Distance”: mountains, sky, heart, pain, stars, breasts, river, emptiness, etc.
While there’s nothing new about enjoying an ungenerous private cackle at a poetry reading, Adam goes further in doggedly interrogating the nature of faulty communication, of translatability, of artistic failure itself: “Maybe these words have a specific weight and valence I cannot appreciate in Spanish, or maybe he is performing subtle variations on a sexist tradition of which I am not in possession,” he wonders. As he looks around the room, he sees
eighty or so people gathered to listen to this utter shit as though it were their daily language passing through the crucible of the human spirit and emerging purified, redeemed, or here were eighty-some people believing the commercial and ideological machinery of their grammar was being deconstructed or at least laid bare, although that didn’t really seem like Tomás’s thing; he was more of a crucible of the human spirit guy.
Adam’s interior monologue barrels along with its characteristic blend of the caustic and the bewildered; his one blind spot, of course, is that Tomás’s “breasts, beach, emptiness” are not entirely unlike his own fuzzy pronouncements about “a century of shadow” or “to write with sculpture.” Adam and Tomás live in different forms of bad faith, but Tomás’s comes off as vainly, blissfully unaware, and therefore more innocent. The scene calls to mind a recurring phrase in Lerner’s Angle of Yaw: “The smugness masks a higher sadness.” But who is smugger, and sadder, here?
Gradually, the novel’s tone of queasy amusement grows queasier and less amusing, as Adam shifts from his half-truths and lacunae to outright lies of increasingly greater complexity and implausibility. He describes his parents as tyrannical, dead, dying, or some combination thereof. (They are lovable and well.) He behaves by turns as if he has one, two, or zero girlfriends. (Two women are in his orbit, though neither they nor he seem able to clarify their relations.) Just as things could not get worse for Adam, they get better, because the worst befalls Madrid: it is 2004, and a series of bombs explode in the city’s trains and stations, including Atocha. For Adam, it is a “reset” button: the post-disaster mood of compassion and solidarity that sweeps the city makes personal failings seem less onerous, so Adam is able to make a few belated admissions almost without consequence. He soon lapses into his usual equivocations and deliberate misunderstandings, but begins to distinguish between what is artistically valuable about this temperament (the aversion to simple answers, the scorn for empty rhetoric) and what is interpersonally toxic (the deferral of resolution, the fear of being vulnerable).
Leaving the Atocha Station is in some ways a roman a clef, with Adam’s back-story mirroring Lerner’s own, and Adam even corresponding online with Lerner’s real-life close friend, the poet Cyrus Console. But Adam is also adamic, a forerunner, in that he predates the extant Ben Lerner currently walking, breathing, and book-touring and that, in a sense, he no longer exists. The poems Adam writes are the poems Ben Lerner wrote three books ago; his fellowship in Madrid is like Lerner’s eight years ago. Most importantly, Lerner is a more accomplished poet now than Adam/Lerner was in the Madrid days, putting Lerner ’11 in the curious position of dilating a moment in his artistic life that he has, like all good artists, striven beyond for fear of stagnating.
Adam’s fear of unmediated interpersonal contact mirrors a recurring depiction, in Lerner’s first two books of poems, of personal contact as a fearsome and damaging event: “I just want to be held, but contingently, the way the mind holds a trauma that failed to take place. Realistic suction, realism sucks” (Angle of Yaw; the poems in these books are untitled); “The children make love ‘execution style,’ / then hold each other like moments of silence” (The Lichtenberg Figures). Adam also plays the doppelganger role more directly by “writing” poems, such as this one, that can be found verbatim in Lerner’s The Lichtenberg Figures:
Possessing a weapon has made me bashful.
Tears appreciate in this economy of pleasure.
The ether of data engulfs the capitol.
Possessing a weapon has made me forgetful.
My oboe tars her cenotaph.
The surface is in process.
Coruscant skinks emerge in force.
The moon spits on a copse of spruce.
Plausible opposites stir in the brush.
Jupiter spins in its ruts.
The wind extends its every courtesy.
I have never been here.
You have never seen me.
This is not Lerner’s work at its best: the lines of the first half of the poem seem oddly shut off from each other, unable to accrue towards some larger statement of meaning or sonic effect. By the poem’s end, we have established firmer ground from which the poem can issue: a place both contemptibly banal and frightening – perhaps the latter follows from the former – where the speaker can only accommodate both of these conditions by working in stock hardboiled dialogue, an idiom in which, not coincidentally, simple declarative statements (e.g., “You never saw me.” “You picked the wrong day to…” “Your luck’s run out”) can convey tacit threats or commands – interesting linguistic bet-hedging from a speaker who doesn’t know what to make of his own capacity for violence.
But in general, The Lichtenberg Figures and Angle of Yaw often rely too heavily on a device used extensively by John Ashbery and others – taking a readymade phrase or dead metaphor and resurrecting it, or trying to, with a deliberate mishearing or mistranscription, or a jarring juxtaposition. (“Leaving the Atocha Station” is the title of an Ashbery poem from The Tennis Court Oath, and the middle of the novel contains a wonderful essay in miniature about the experience of reading Ashbery’s work.) In The Tennis Court Oath, for example, Ashbery writes of peculiar “heart bees” instead of old-hat “heartbeats.” Lerner can make an improvement on two tired phrases by linking them bizarrely, such as “lean your head / against my better judgment.” (Lichtenberg Figures) These are of value when they accomplish something for the larger poem, which they don’t always do. To read Lerner’s best work to date, one must turn to his more recent poems, which are excluded from the novel by its conceit of recreating a slightly more distant past.
In altering and fictionalizing a past period of his own artistic production, therefore making it both further from himself (through falsification) and nearer to himself (through recollection), Lerner calls to mind fellow poet, Rilke, whose 1910 novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge similarly reimagines the travails of a fledgling alter ego – in both cases, importantly, a less promising and less capable persona than the “authentic” poet-novelist. Creating a character who resembles his author but with sharp and sometimes unflattering exaggeration of features serves at least two motives that are at first contradictory. On one hand, the exaggeration makes the subtle visible, helping a writer interested in self-scrutiny find the pattern of obsessions
and doubts that may bring new work into being. On the other, the caricature is like a funhouse mirror, the effect of which is to make one feel relieved and fortunate to have such a finely proportioned and intact body, after having seen it curled, fractured, and stretched into more grotesque reflections. The first caricatures self-portraiture so as to derive truth from it. The second caricatures self-portraiture so as to look healthy by comparison. Most of us, recalling or reinventing our own pasts, have relied on both strategies.
Malte, like Adam, is preoccupied with husks, scarves, veils between him and the world; unlike Adam, his initial hope is to tear them away, finding these barriers to be “an incredibly dull slipcover … like living-room furniture during the summer vacation.” Both narrators identify this sense of interposition as partly neurological in nature: Adam makes frequent if vague references to his daily regimen of psychiatric medications; Malte eventually receives what is now called electroconvulsive therapy. By referencing the therapies in vogue for their respective epochs, both narrators seem to imply that unwellness is a condition peculiar to “contemporary” life: that it’s oh-so-1900, or oh-so-2000.
The corollary of what Malte and Adam imply is that there was a time when life could be apprehended more directly, and less perilously, than now: a nostalgia for Romanticism, however wary and smart-alecky in Adam’s case. In Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy,” the Romantic poet can distinguish between two kinds of melancholy: the false, dulling stuff of Lethe, drugs and stupor, and a sublime variety that is less the rejection of feeling than the transmutation of it; it must be crushed like a grape on the roof of the mouth to release its savor and transport the melancholiac into the company of the gods: “Him whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine; / His soul shall taste the sadness of her might, / And be among her cloudy trophies hung. I couldn’t help but think of Keats’ lines in contrast to Lerner’s description of pill-swallowing in Atocha:
It was worse than having a sinking feeling, I was a sinking feeling… He, if I can put it that way, had felt this as a child when they sent him to camp; his heart seemed at once to race and stop. Then his breath caught, flattened, shattered; as though a window had broken at thirty thousand feet, there was a sudden vacuum. Some of the gray was sucked inside him, and he was at a loss; he became a symptom of himself. He summoned the strength to reach into his bag, open the childproof bottle, touch the yellow pill to his tongue, crush it between his index finger and his thumb, and return its moist remains to the floor of his mouth. Then he waited and waited and finally the edge of something dulled…. He would take my siesta then.
Adam’s all-consuming despair can lead to only one possible conclusion: that he remove himself from himself, and stop being an “I,” until the worst is over. Once upon a time it may have been possible to find something triumphant or redeeming in the experience of mental crisis; now, though the ritual of the crushed morsel remains in dim outline, no transport occurs, only a numb convalescence.
By now it must be clear that Leaving the Atocha Station is as much an apologia for poetry as it is a novel. Lerner’s ability to accomplish both projects at once is a marvel. His sense of narrative forward motion and his penchant for rumination are kept in constant competition with one another, so that neither is allowed to keep the upper hand for long. Leaving the Atocha Station is a novel for poets, liars, and equivocators – that is, for aspects of us all. It is also a poem, dedicated to the gulf between self and self – ego and alter ego, “true me” and “false me,” present self and outgrown past.
Laura Kolbe works in clinical research at a hospital in New York City.