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Poetry as Alien Contact: 'The Lights' by Ben Lerner

Updated: May 3

It is sometimes difficult to write about poetry, since poetry is that kind of writing that connects the speakable to the unspeakable — but it’s worth a shot, y’all. If you read one book of poems in honor of Poetry Month this April, let it be Ben Lerner’s The Lights.

Reading Lerner’s poems induces a feeling of an out-of-body experience. His sentences are crystalline portraits of convoluted ideas, the thread of logic a kind of trail of breadcrumbs that leads the reader into several different directions at once. ‘The Lights’ initially refers to the famous Fukushima lights, those UFOs that hovered near the nuclear disaster, the poems positioned as a kind of oracular call to the aliens who seem to watch over us — poetry as alien contact! You gotta love Lerner, y’all. From there the lights evolve into every conceivable form: the red light of an alarm clock, streetlights, fireflies, lightning, the ultraviolet light of an x-ray that pierces through the body, etc. The entire concept of light as a revelation of reality is peeled away through Lerner’s slippery, visionary verses: “Shades & impurities that let us hold our shapes are minimum conditions for a world, but many worlds collide & recombine as you walk through them.”

When you’re talking about light, you’re talking about vision: Lerner links the construction of how we see the world to how we remember it, how we use language to describe it, how we use politics to inform that language. Memory is especially important, as is the salient image of the photograph in Back to the Future that Marty McFly has in his pocket, & which reveals members of his family disappearing the further he dabbles in the past. This image, in Lerner’s hands, becomes a kind of window into memory itself: “Learning some facts feels like remembering, as they fit into place other facts have prepared for them / we can carry the shape of a fact we don’t know around like a photograph // of a missing loved one.”

Lerner is continuously returning to vision, how things are seen, & especially how they become distorted (language being, perhaps, the most important tool in this process of distortion). Rain too is a kind of distorting glass for Lerner, a wobbly lens that melts all discriminating lines in the sand between signifier & signified, past & present, dream & reality. It seems almost as if while writing this collection he continuously found himself caught in the rain, wandering under the misted rays of streetlights & wondering at the the way the drops warp the light — one of the key images of the collection is the expansive branching pattern found in ice, leaf veins, a kind of embodiment of randomness that occurs in nature over & over, & feels, by the end of this book, to be a sort of force of the multiverse that can be tapped into: “If you’ve ever seen a dendritic pattern in a frozen pond, lightning captured in hard plastic, or the delicate venation of an insect wing (the 4th vein of the wing is called the media), then 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.” How to see this pattern, how to feel it pulsing through the world, is one of the elusive central currents of the book.

A story that links all these themes rather neatly lurks in a poem called ‘The Grove’, & describes the discovery that Lerner’s brother was colorblind, this as precursor to a childhood scene where they’re both in a room in a place called the Magic House:

There was a wall that consisted almost entirely of safes with combination locks. This room was crowded with people trying random combinations, trying to open one of the safes. On the wall was a list of the probabilities of arriving at the right permutation for the respective locks. The point was it was nearly impossible. And yet this was one of the most popular rooms in the Magic House. Certainly my brother and I were instantly mesmerized, trying random numbers again and again, refusing to give any other kid a chance at our safe, even though the wall text said the safes were empty. I don’t know how long we spent in the safe room, which had the frenetic feel of a video game arcade, or people playing the slots, that kind of mania, but at a certain point I heard, I remember hearing, my brother’s safe make a satisfying click. Everyone gasped, fell silent, and watched as the small, heavy door swung open. You’re making this up, she said. And out of the darkness of the safe burst forth seven parrot finches with bright green bodies and red heads, birds I though my brother couldn’t see, believing as I did that being colorblind meant you couldn’t perceive the colored object, not just an aspect of its surface.

This is only a small piece of the poem, a story within a story (he is exchanging stories with an elusive female character, a therapist or a lover). The revelation of the birds, the perception of color (& misperception of his brother’s vision), the memory, the construction of the story itself & its sneaky logical storytelling, all combine to create a special brand of surprise. The revelation that exists behind a locked safe that you probably will never open is a kind of metaphor for poetry itself: you may never find the right way in, but when you do, the rewards are transcendent.

Give it a shot, y’all.

—Cowboy Books


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