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There are certain (uncertain) propositions that every poet must eventually encounter, if only to embrace or abandon. They are not propositions so much as ways of being, lifestyles; and, like the way one walks, or talks, or just stands in the rain, they are ineluctably intimate parts of ourselves, hence not propositions so much as self-images. What kind of poet do you want to be (I imagine a Bellovian unctuous trickster asking)? What kind of poet are you?

“Oh, she’s an angry poet,” they say, or, “The woman is far too sentimental for my tastes.”

These are cursory judgments, but some kind of truths are lodged in even the most mawkish and unhelpful of sentiments. So let’s begin at the beginning. A poem is a stance, a temperament, a philosophy, an ontologically practical, (if impractical), modus operandi. A vision – not necessarily metaphysical, but a way of looking at things that is that particular poet’s way. The proof? An Ashbery poem is not a Creeley poem. Read an Ashbery poem. You might immediately conclude that Ashbery is a funny poet, a strangely poignant poet, a curiously flat poet, like Warhol, or Clare, a poet of disappointment, a poet whose science entails the combining of words and phrases that, without Ashbery’s florabundant consciousness, would never have been placed together in the first place. Ashbery is a poet of surprise, of flow, a John Cage of language, whereby the chance coincidences of daily stuff form an abstract collage that is life heightened: an aesthetic.

Is Creeley – I’m thinking of early Creeley, from For Love – the (complex) opposite of Ashbery? What do Ashbery and Creeley share besides a certain kind of disappointment, a disillusionment with what Richard Rorty calls “the way things hang together”? For, aside from this initial bewilderment or despair at the way things are – ontologically, epistemologically – Creeley is the poet of the anti-flow, the inept and inert stutter, the desperation of someone who cannot say what he wants to say, so makes a poem out of that. To say that Creeley is funny is like saying that Todd Solondz’s movies are funny. For Creeley’s early poems are often cruel, and to say that they are “funny” is perhaps to say more about your own predilections for mean-spiritedness than, say, Creeley’s.

Still, like Ashberys’ early work, Creeley’s poems are, or at least seem to be, something new. They are not exactly adventures of the imagination, like Ashbery’s; in fact, I wonder if the word “imagination” is even appropriate for discussing Creeley’s early works. For if Ashbery’s philosophy is “Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination,” Creeley’s is, “Perhaps we can’t feel with more imagination.” Yet does that make for a coherent, or even interesting, poetics? If Ashbery’s poems are premised, if distantly, on a hope for the future, a hope for new imaginary communities, a hope for a new way of speaking, Creeley’s poem are cynical about the future, isolated from community, and unable to even speak.

It is for that reason, paradoxically, that they deserve some attention.

For the point of comparison, let’s look at two poems: one by Ashbery, one by Creeley, both with the same titles – “The Hero” – and from their first well-received books – Some Trees, by Ashbery, published in 1956, and For Love, by Creeley, published in 1962. I want to interrogate, foremost, how Ashbery and Creeley conceptualize their heroic figures, for in scrutinizing such humongously important matrices of ideas, we might therefore put our finger on the nerve, not only of what makes these poets so different, but also on how we might characterize and define their individual and idiosyncratic poetic (and therefore philosophic) stances.
Here is Ashbery’s “The Hero,” in full, (and notice the interestingly Creeley-esque form):

Whose face is this
So stiff against the blue trees,

Lifted to the future
Because there is no end?

But that has faded
Like flowers, like the first days

Of good conduct. Visit
The strong man. Pinch him –

There is no end to his
Dislike, the accurate one.

We might start by acknowledging how enigmatic the poem is – even, perhaps, how willfully obscure. Who is the eponymous hero? Is it the “stiff” face, “lifted to the future”? Is it “the strong man”? Is it “the accurate one”? All three? Is the poet himself the hero, and is his stance the one which we might take to be heroic? If so, how would we characterize his stance towards the “hero”?

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine that Ashbery’s “hero” in this poem is Robert Creeley. And imagine that Ashbery, like any competitive poet – locked in some regards into a good old fashioned Bloomian agon – wishes to carve out his own poetic voice in contradistinction to Creeley’s. How would this affect our reading of the poem?
First, perhaps Ashbery would be mocking, however quietly, Creeley’s “stiff face,” the unyielding way in which he denies all transcendence – not because Ashbery believes himself in transcendence, but because of the way in which Creeley denies it – so stern, so puritanical, so unbending. The “blue trees” might then be a trope for Ashbery’s poetic persona. In many poems in Some Trees – “Two Scenes,” “Popular Songs,” “The Instruction Manual,” “Meditations of a Parrot,” “Sonnet,” “Le livre est sur la table” – the color blue figures prominently and enigmatically: we hear of “the blue shadow of some paint cans,” “the blue blue mountain,” a “rose-and-blue striped dress (Oh! such shades of rose and blue),” “blue cornflakes in a white bowl,” “the razor, blue with ire,” and a “young man” who “places a bird house / Against the blue sea.” Blue trees are especially poignant, considering that the title poem of the book, “Some Trees,” is about trees as a metaphor for human connection. So maybe equating the blue trees with Ashbery’s poetic persona isn’t as hackneyed as it sounds.

But where does that take us? Is the face “lifted to the future,” or are the trees? Perhaps we might read the second stanza in two ways. If “no end” refers to the trees, then we might read the phrase as a typical self-referential Ashberian commentary on the elasticity of time. But what if it is Creeley’s face – a very distinct one, considering he had only one eye, and occasionally wore an eye-patch – that is raised to the future? Might we then read “no end” in completely different terms, as a kind of complaint, as if to say, “there is no end to my suffering”? We might then have the same tension in the first stanza – Creeley’s face, stiff against the blue trees of Ashbery’s persona – repeated in the second, where Ashbery is ridiculing Creeley’s stance as pompous and self-aggrandizing, as one who laments the endlessness of suffering and who must look (mawkishly), as a result, to the future, where perhaps there will be less pain.

Now let’s follow our divergent readings and see where they take us. If we read the next three lines – “But that has faded / Like flowers, like the first days // Of good conduct” – as more typical Ashberiana, then what we have on our hands is the Ashberian mode of replacing one image as quickly as he can with the next, as if we were reading a Stevens poem set to fast forward. But what if what’s faded – what Ashbery is arguing for – is the Creeleyan poetic stance – the cynicism, the disgusted high-mindedness, the seriousness, the darkness? Is this perhaps the moment at which Ashbery begins carving out his own poetic identity, by critiquing his reading of Creeley’s poetic identity? If so, then we might paraphrase those three lines as saying something along the lines of, “Yet your stance, for all its professed heroicisim and stoicism, has already faded like flowers, or childhood days when we cared about our behavior.” In this sense, Ashbery would be arguing that Creeley’s stance – perhaps like Lowell’s – is outmoded, and therefore not a viable aesthetic, at least for Ashbery.

In the final lines, therefore, we are faced with a massive ambivalence. For it is unclear if “the accurate one” is Ashbery or Creeley. We therefore do not know if this “dislike” is being criticized or commended. If we read “the strong man” as the Creeleyan poetic persona, then we might read the final lines as Ashbery critiquing Creeley’s misanthropic dislike, his fastidious need for accuracy. Yet if we read “the accurate one” as Ashbery, we might read the final lines as a self-critique, with Ashbery uncomfortable with his criticism of the strong man – i.e. the pronoun “his” in the second-to-last line would be Ashbery, and here we would hear Ashbery’s own exasperated sigh with himself. The point is not to find the exact right reading, but rather to call attention to the way in which, in Ashbery’s “The Hero,” these ambivalences are braided together. Yet it seems intriguing, to say the least, that “The Hero” is written in such characteristically Creeleyan form.

Now let’s look at Creeley’s “The Hero,” made up of eleven four-lined stanzas. How does Creeley’s stance towards the hero in his poem differ from Ashbery’s? Here is the whole poem:

Each voice which was asked
spoke its words, and heard
more than that, the fair question,
the onerous burden of the asking.

And so the hero, the
hero! stepped that gracefully
into his redemption, losing
or gaining life thereby.

Now we, now I
ask also, and burdened,
tied down, return
and seek the forest also.

Go forth, go forth,
saith the grandmother, the fire
of that old form, and turns
away from the form.

And the forest is dark,
mist hides it, trees
are dim, but I turn
to my father in the dark.

A spark, that spark of hope
which was burned out long ago,
the tedious echo
of the father image

– which only women bear,
also wear, old men, old cares,
and turn, and again find
the disorder in the mind.

Night is dark like the mind,
my mind is dark like the night.
O light the light! Old
foibles of the right.

Into that pit, now pit of
anywhere, the tears upon your hands,
how can you stand
it, I also turn.

I wear the face, I face
the right, the night, the way,
I go along the path
into the last and only dark,

Hearing hero! hero!
a voice faint enough, a spark,
a glimmer grown dimmer through years
of old, old fears.

The poem begins with the asking of questions – what seem important questions, for those who answer the questions are aware not only of the question themselves, but the “onerous burden” of asking. There is therefore a dialectic that is set up between questioning and asking, both activities which, as the poem continues, are anointed somewhat with heroic status, and given metaphoric clothing as adventures into the dark.

Yet we do not hear of this heroic adventure being undertaken by the hero him or herself. Rather, the hero, who disappears as a figure after the second stanza, and is replaced with the poet himself, does his vague heroic deed, and thereby lives or dies accordingly. Although it is difficult to read the tone of the second stanza, Creeley exhibits a certain sad insouciance towards the hero, as well as a disconnect towards the hero’s fate – i.e., he or she will either live or die, but either way, Creeley seems to be saying, these are the typical conventions of a heroic story, and there is nothing surprising about that. Here the speaker’s relationship to the hero is different from the Ashberian speaker; it is more straightforward, if similarly, though less complexly, ambivalent. In Ashbery’s poem, despite the title, it is never clear just who the hero is, so we are adrift upon a vague ocean of resemblances and concordances; in Creeley’s poem, it is more clear that the hero is the conventional hero of fairy tales, venturing off into the dark forest, but it is also Creeley or the poet himself, venturing similarly into the tangled thickets of memory, to try and devise a way of forming something lasting from this adventure, some redemptive offering, a poem perhaps. In this sense, Creeley’s poem is less ironic than Ashbery’s. It does not truck in a difficult-to-place irony, nor does it use discordant and puzzling imagery that entails a kind of cognitive dissonance for the reader. If anything, Creeley’s imagery – though his style still somewhat beguiles – is largely conventional: we have the hero, the dim dark forest, the grandmother urging the hero out, the father figure, the quest, night and light, the path. This all sounds rather yawn-worthy, however; so what is it that makes Creeley’s poem interesting?

What makes Creeley’s poem interesting is that, for all its stylistic compression, we are given a very standard and conventional narrative; and despite the tone of exhaustion and cynicism we might feel from the speaker towards his subject, Creeley does not revise the heroic quest story very much, or offer very many alternatives. Another way of saying this is that Creeley, and the Black Mountain tradition he emerges from, does not do irony. Creeley’s hero, therefore, is the hero of myth, of fairy tale and folk tale; and we might do well to read much of his work, consequently, in that light – as work in which Creeley posits himself as the conventional male hero figure, and all his various disappointments in love as commentaries on this figuration. This might make some sense, considering Creeley’s later work, where much of his intriguing bitterness is replaced with a kind of lazy contentment that seems to suggest an end-of-the-road poetics, whereby the earlier misanthropy of the young man is replaced with arm-chair speculation and hard-earned domestic satisfaction.

All of which is to say, that Ashbery, after this analysis, strikes me as the more radical poet. His poem takes greater risks – earlier we called it “willfully obscure” – but Ashbery does not seem saddled so much with the desire to be the Promethean quester, searching for the fire, venturing into the forest. He’s way too ironic to take these myths too seriously, although he’s radical enough to substitute new imagery for old. For that reason, if Creeley sees himself as the king of his own narrative, questing after redemption, where he will either live or die, Ashbery once again finds himself in the role of trickster and clown, discombobulating our awareness, turning our attention to his motley theatrics, and poking fun at convention. The New York School, if we wish to place Ashbery in that context, is far, far more ironic. If we wish to understand more deeply the relationship between the Black Mountain poets and the New York school, then, we might start by investigating and interrogating the role that irony plays in much of these poets’ works.

“The Waste Land” is most usually and most persuasively read as a satire. The argument for “The Waste Land” as a satire sounds something like this: Written in the wake of WWI, a time of immense cultural (and personal) confusion, Eliot’s waste is pure disharmony between body and mind; the triumph of industry over civility and of frivolity over responsibility; and the ultimately sallow consolation of restoration only in one’s own headspace. Poetry itself is implicit is this decay— Romanticism’s unearned novelties a reflection of hubris and Victorianism’s decadence only spit-shining a deeper blemish.  But of course, Eliot is a poet. This irony of “The Waste Land” is best represented by its only true emotional center, the second line of quoted material taken from Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins/Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.” Here our “The Waste Land”’s speaker is channeling a father gone insane with the death of his son—the opposite of Hamlet—in which he (the father) will use the stage to draw out guilt from his son’s killers. In “The Waste Land” we see that poetry, for Eliot, only continues to be a possibility because of this father, this tradition, which can be reused and recycled at the given historical moment’s discretion.

So fragments are the order of the day. The text is divided between poem proper and footnotes, the poem proper is divided into sections, no narrative calcifies among these sections, even the allusions divide their ancestry between what is known as East and West. The speaker, of course, is worse for the wear (ie so nuts they’re still roasting him (yes, that‘s a Fire Sermon joke)). And the one solace, these ‘fragments shored against ruin’ (please note that this is a metafictive trope regarding “The Waste Land”’s own design, famously described as collage), beacons an effort to stave off despair, heralding a tradition that has simultaneously abandoned its decedents as its decedents have abandoned it, leaving a trail of empty gestures, an uncultivated culture, a poem breaking itself apart with the without of guidance, composure, and love and compassion. Thus, “The Waste Land” is a satire, finally, of western tradition and culture. It is not linear, it does not usher a transcendent meaning, it does not reason, it’s barely for the public—and yet its contents are: Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, etc. And so where the poem is at all comical it is so with a sort of hysterical laughter, high-brow, perhaps, but more especially high-pitched.

Given this assumption, I consider my counter to be self-evident. If “The Waste Land” is a satire by way of referencing and containing the diamonds of the West while simultaneously parodying the West’s finger-banging for an easily communicable Truth, then it is only a satire by way of its mode of reference. Were it not for “The Waste Land”‘s allusions it would be a fragmented poem. An experiment no more or less attention-grabbing than practically the entirety of Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations. A hybrid of Prufrock and Eliot’s collection titled Poems, it is the domineering use of allusion in conjunction with its teen-like angst at the lack of tangibility of the texts of which it is made that makes this poem in any way ironic.

Thus, first and foremost, “The Waste Land” is—in the tradition of Dante and Eliot’s later flag-bearer Thomas Pynchon—an encyclopedia. The notion of encyclopedic narratives comes from Ed Mendelson, and I’ll expand on this tradition in a moment, but my point here is that Eliot’s sense of responsibility is not to conjure a well-informed guffaw, bludgeoning the calamitous sexual needs of a brutish poor, but an attempt to save a few lines, a few poems, a few books for later use. I direct those who scoff to Eliot’s own “Hamlet and His Problems,”

Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to other works of art; and for “interpretation” the chief task is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know.

The work of poetry as a material. As something physical, like lumber. And, according to Eliot, interpretation is matter of facts. That’s a bewildering prescription. Also, the word “standards” is odd here, and we’ll return to these things. But as an encyclopedia, “The Waste Land” is not a satire at all; instead, it’s an earnest documentation of Eliot’s very profound and very personal experience with literature. The fragments, after all, are shored against my ruin.

Three asides (concluding with awesome segue):

1. In this context, the poem proper and the footnotes—together—make a cohesive whole that is “The Waste Land.” The footnotes are part of the body of the text, nothing less. Eliot’s flippant attitude toward we-the-reader’s interpretation, the dozens of allusions (aka suggested reading), even the notes that inject Eliot’s own understanding into the text, each are elements of the poem that enjoy an all-but-equal share in consideration.

2(a). In “Burial of the Dead” the speaker says “Come in under the shadow of this red rock/(There is shadow under this red rock),/And I will show you something different from either/your shadow at morning striding behind you/or your shadow at evening rising to meet you”—why does the speaker assume you are traveling eastward? Why does Eliot’s footnote for “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih” go out of its way to mention that this is a formal closing of an Upanishad, much like “Amen” at the close of a prayer. Eliot wants one mythology to rule them all. And so he writes his western Upanishad.

2(b). For Eliot, form is not a matter of fitting the inspiration for a strait jacket. Eliot’s form creates a historical object, something with borders and boundaries. Form tempers the bleeding from one thing into another; but this is not to say that the boundaries are not, when at their best, porous.

3. What Whitman means to the epic is still becoming clear, which is nice because it means it’s a process in which we’re partaking, if we’re partaking. Speaking of process, it seems to be the hallmark of this tradition. The American epic is not as much the all-encompassing sweep of any particular poem, but is instead the motion—the before, during, and after—of each particular poet. Hence, Leaves of Grass is the becoming of Whitman. And Eliot is a full-fledged participant in this tradition. Much like Leaves of Grass, after 1925 Eliot put all of his poems, with exception of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a children’s book, into one book of Collected Poems. And if this is not enough to convince you that Eliot was invested in process, read his remarks on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which explicitly instructs readers to look at this as a one aspect of the totality of Joyce’s career.

True, Eliot’s speaker is more ornamented than our barbaric yawper. Eliot’s poems are built with closed doors, where Whitman wants the doors entirely removed. He (Eliot) prefers the ritual of technique to the ritual of intimacy. So although Eliot winces while he nods to Whitman, he nonetheless makes the nod. Remember, they are lilacs that breed from the dead land. The two are of the same lineage. Even the tension between the two is a classically American tension: Whitman, poet of action, newspapers, egalitarian even in his glances. Eliot, poet of inaction, journals, a representative from the creative elite.

Here we might again note that Eliot was a sickly child. He couldn’t play games. So he stayed inside, reading. The American stylizing of freedom is Whitman’s frontier as its absence is Eliot’s. Whitman participates, and Eliot envisions.

Encyclopedic narrative does not proceed as dramatic action. The narrative is not of people, places, and things but of words, ideas, and histories. It provides references. The processes of narrative only occur as an intellectual exercise in describing, categorizing, and reformulating. For the encyclopedia, events take place within ideas, not time. Take our dude Dante for instance. We’ll look at the Inferno.

In the Inferno Dante provides an intensely systematic description of sin. Notice that the dramatic action of Dante’s plot is decided from the beginning. There is no suspense here, no ‘what next’. The pilgrimage has been divined and it’s a comedy because it will end in Paradise. The characters are two dimensional. They’re representations of ideas—excuses for Dante and Virgil to have a chat.  The current of this story is not action. Instead it is the detail of the vision. Each punishment sheds more light on the nature of its corresponding sin by way of synecdoche (eg the lustful are blown around by the whims of the winds). His vision of Hell’s circles and their rigid hierarchies, the historical figures of his choosing, his own (Dante is a character is his own story) reactions to the punishment—all of these things lend to Dante’s classifying sin from least to most egregious.

Eliot’s encyclopedia is more . . . playful. I won’t say that it is pure play. Thomas Eliot is not Thomas Pynchon. But if Dante’s encyclopedia represents a well-ordered world and Pynchon’s encyclopedia represents a world ordered only by the patterns of one’s perception, then where is Eliot? In short, how do we read “The Waste Land” as reference? How do we use “The Waste Land”?

Eliot’s most obvious break from Dante occurs in the realm of aesthetics. To be clear, Dante’s preferred mode of operation is allegory. Eliot’s is symbolism. When I say symbolism, of course, I am referring to the aesthetic movement of which Eliot describes a variation as the definition of a poet in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The poet as a catalyst is the symbolist in motion: At the hands of the mind an emotion or feeling is processed and transformed into an entirely independent material. Like how lumber becomes a house. For Eliot, the poet is essentially a specialist. Everyone uses words but the poet designs words. The poem does not “convey” meaning. The poem is meaning.

With this in mind, that the poem’s presence is its meaning, we use “The Waste Land”’s “historical facts,” (eg the images of speech it performs, its allusions, even its lapses) like atheists in a friend’s church. We show up. We’re polite. We scoff. We’re confused. We’re offended. We like the way some things look, so we look more closely. We take what we need, we use what we can. We go Garbage Picking. We say thank you. Thank you.

It might be noted here that although the fragment was one of Eliot’s wild “inventions,” a necessary consequence and weakness of Eliot’s poetry are these fragments. For whatever reason, Eliot’s poetry is incapable of performing pattern perception. It may be that the specialist undergoes a certain occupational psychosis. The current trends toward reflexivity in nearly every discipline of study would suggest a closedness that  I sometimes assume hurts everything.

Or it may be that Eliot’s prioritization of entire realms of experience either above or below others. Exclusion of this sort, the kind that takes short cuts and calls them standards, is a mutilation. And the perpetrator is often first to be scarred.

But to be as plain as I can be, my goal here has been to define the terms and conditions for Eliot as an American. America faces some special conditions. We’re founded by slaves and idealists and—the combination of the two—entrepreneurs. The numerous paradoxes of American culture often find their home in the tension between an egalitarian proverb and the reality of the creative elite. Eliot’s poetry reflects a very specific reaction to the poet-as-a-person-who-must-get-up-and-work-everyday. For Eliot, poetry is a spiritualization of luxury. It’s the finest things, it’s the time to enjoy the finest things, it’s the burning that comes with acquiring the acquired taste. It’s the confusion thereafter, when possibilities for praxis need practice.

For choosing to write about Eliot, I have also noticed that many of my poets-in-arms borrow Eliot’s snobbery and use it against him. Yes, he is a big dumb white man. Yes, he was racist and sexist and anti-Semitic and a royalist if not a fascist. Still, it seems to me that one of the dangers of not engaging with a strand of thought is that it seeps into your own with you being able to detect its presence.

And the possible lesson from Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is that we agree on a canon, not The Canon, or even a tradition with the same guiding principles. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot hands us his own canon. This idea, that what we read can be completely private and completely public might be useful. Or a canon with the potential for flux would be nice, one that changes as needed. Certainly a canon that would include all of the voices marginalized for centuries. But a canon is there for a reason: The Community. If we are talk about the same things, if we are to really talk at all, we must have some commons between us. Straight people should endeavor to understand other sexualities. Asians should read Hispanics. White people should read black writers. Men should read women. Women should read men. Black people should read white writers. Hispanics should read Asians. The queer community should endeavor to understand other sexualities. If democracy is to exist let all permutations therein dance around a bit. This is the lesson for democracy of T. S. Eliot, the fascist.

Adam Fitzgerald has been up to some crazy shit lately. Not only is the man a teaching, (Maggy) magazine editing, (Monk) book publishing maniac, he’s also managed to put together a 100-page, 6-part poem collage in all that spare time he has. It’s called “The Life of Gorgias.”

This is how Adam describes this piece:

“The Gorgias” will have the first of six installments to be posted online. It incorporates poetry, collage, pornography, emails, Gchats, Facebook, and something I’m very excited about — music by STARS OF THE LID (an amazing ambient drone band that I’ve listened to for the past year when writing).
The work is debuting in the newly-minted Fortnight Journal today. Check it out.

Ben Lerner is damn smart. In case you aren’t convinced by my saying so, you need only stop and examine one his books the next time you have a chance. Just the titles of The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and most recently, Mean Free Path (Copper Canyon Press, 2010) suggest that the enclosed works have elaborate scholarly underpinnings. Lerner’s cerebral poetry isn’t chip-on-the-shoulder intellectualism or self-conscious hipsterism, however, and to shy away from his books because of their rigorous erudition would be to miss a difficult, witty, utterly sincere contemporary writer.

Lerner’s latest project is a sensitive exploration of how our inherited war- and commerce-freighted language might be capable of intimate expression. According to the publisher’s blurb on the back cover of the book, which is the most succinct explanation I could find of the title: “In physics, the “mean free path” of a particle is the average distance it travels before colliding with another particle.” In adopting this phrase as his title, Lerner appears to be making an analogy to our language: particular words and phrases bear residues of prior use. For example, since “shock” and “awe” were appropriated by 1996 military doctrine and then repeated all over news media in 2003 as the U.S. military bombed Iraq, we may not use these words (and certainly not the phrase “shock and awe”) without the tarnish of the over 6,600 casualties—many of them civilians—of the “invasion phase” of the U.S. campaign. And this is just one example involving rather commonplace words—night vision green, this time with feeling, perfect world, prisoner, and a host of other problematic phrases and words recur throughout Lerner’s book. They do so, however, in the interest of expressing himself to a particular addressee—his wife—in a manner that creates fresh intimacy for the reader. Surprisingly, through fracture, repetition, collision, and repeated recontextualization of particular words and phrases, Lerner’s new poems work to liberate love poetry, elegy, and poetry in general from commercial and military connotation.

This project is full of surprise, including humor. Lerner can’t seem to help but barb his poems with sometimes-desperate, dry wit and knuckleball pop reference. The first poem, a “Dedication” to his wife, whose name lovingly recurs throughout, reads, after its central break:

    For I felt nothing,
        which was cool,
    totally cool with me.
    For my blood was cola.
    For my authority was small,
    involuntary muscles
        in my face.
    For I had had some work done
        on my face.

The idiomatic use of “cool,” the surprising, practically Objectivist (insert your own long sequence of analysis here, à la Zukofsky, whose name appears at the end of the first section) use of “cola,” and the sudden reference to plastic surgery all constitute a deixis to the commercialization of language (not to mention the ominous suggestion of “authority”), in a personalized, loving frame. How can these bits of language belong in a love poem, if not to say, “I care so much about you, let me use my terrible inherited palette self-consciously, athletically, and baring my preoccupations. It’s all I have.”

In the end, however, extrapolated earnestness is not all Lerner offers his wife and reader. These poems are also absorbingly formally innovative. The book is divided into five sections. Following “Dedication” (which is a doubling of the “Doppler Elegy” form)—the second and fourth sections are called “Mean Free Path” and the third and fifth “Doppler Elegies.” Both “Mean Free Path” sections are comprised of sequences of 36 stanzas. It’s hard to call these stanzas individual poems, as none are marked by a title. Each is nine lines of relatively similar length, somewhat akin to Spenserian stanzas, although not patterned by stress or meter. These stanzas are challenging bits of poetry, however. Each line of “Mean Free Path” may or may not enjamb sensibly with the next, and enjambment may break a given phrase off from its expected, idiomatic conclusion. There is never punctuation at the end of a line, and often as we read the meanings of fractured phrases are transformed through Lerner’s collage-like stanzas, which are part of a great mosaic of repetition, fracture, juxtaposition, and ellipsis. The reader must work to make sense of the leaps in subject, tense, grammar, lost predicates, or might read smoothly from one line to the next. This game of making, not making, and changing sense continues over the marked breaks between stanzas. For example, the second section of “Mean Free Path” opens:

    What if I made you hear this as music
    But not how you mean that. The slow beam
    Opened me up. Walls walked through me
    Like resonant waves. I thought that maybe
    If you aren’t too busy, we could spend our lives
    Parting in stations, promising to write
    War and Peace, this time with feeling
    As bullets leave their luminous traces across
    Wait, I wasn’t finished, I was going to say
    Breakwaters echo long lines of cloud


    Rununciation scales. Exhibits shade
    Imperceptibly into gift shops. The death of a friend
    Opens me up. Suddenly the weather
    Is written by Tolstoy, whose hands were giant
    Resonant waves. It’s hard not to take
    When your eye is at the vertex of a cone
    Autumn personally. My past becomes
    Of lines extending to each leaf
    Citable in all its moments: parting, rain

A similar game of meaning-making and -breaking is afoot in Lerner’s “Doppler Elegies,” which formally attempt to mimic the “shifts” that Christian Doppler described in terms of the frequency of waves for an observer moving relative the source of the wave—the source, of course, may be the mover, too, and the effect may also be created by a change in medium through which waves travel. In addition to this scientific framing, Lerner’s “Doppler Elegy” form is comprised of three nine-line stanzas, the second, seventh, and ninth lines indented and shortened to create a sense of shift. The shorter lines of these pieces—some of which are very short—create an even more dramatic effect on readability as one proceeds through each piece. The difficulty of making sense in these poems by amplified in Lerner’s process of fracture and juxtaposition—essentially collage. Self-reference is even more insistent and intense, as well. The penultimate “Doppler Elegy” of the book’s third section reads:


    Somewhere in this book I broke
        There is a passage
    with a friend. I regret it now
    lifted verbatim from
    Then began again, my focus on
    moving the lips, failures in
        The fuselage glows red against
    rinsed skies. Rehearsing sleep
        I think of him from time

    in a competitive field
        facedown, a familiar scene
    composed entirely of stills
    to time. It’s hard to believe
    When he calls, I pretend
    he’s gone. He was letting himself go
        I’m on the other line
    in a cluster of eight poems
    all winter. The tenses disagreed

    for Ari. Sorry if I’ve seemed
        distant, it’s been a difficult
    period, striking as many keys
    with the flat of the hand
    as possible, then leaning the head
    against the window, unable to recall
        April, like overheard speech
    at the time of writing
        soaked into its length

And the poem continues into another challenging section. I would love to keep going with such fascinating (to me) examples, but I believe this is a book worth owning and spending a fair amount of time with. Novel, exciting, sometimes funny and always strangely intimate, Mean Free Path is constantly and repeatedly intriguing. Lerner’s deep well of scholarship and charming wit are marshaled toward a sincere, personal mission (military connotations inescapable) here, and the result is a difficult, winning book of poems that, rather like Nabokov’s best work—although nothing like Nabokov’s best work—are endlessly rich with discovery. If you aren’t familiar with this astonishing 31 year-old poet, it’s in your interest to become so, as his past and future work will be with us for a long time.