Saturday, April 17, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Angle of Yaw, by Ben Lerner

Review by Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark, Summer 2009

Angle of Yaw
By Ben Lerner
Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington
$15.00, 127pp, Paper 2006

NOTE: This collection is divided into five sections. No poems within the sections are given titles. Most of the short poems are in the two sections that share the book’s title. Here, I will identify them solely by their page numbers. And lest you assume that the many highlights I quote give you these best of this book, let me assure you emphatically that these gems are only pale reflections of the contexts that contain them. In addition, the reader will observe that this reviewer is not only quoting the text directly, but is also roving through the book at will gluing together separate items to form composite metaphors. He cannot resist the torrent of implications that beckon at every turn. He’s not trying to improve on the poet’s words, only responding to them. Somehow he hopes Mr. Lerner will approve.

Very occasionally a collection of poems is so wildly evocative, it forces the reviewer to wax poetical just to give the reader a hint of its flavor. Angle of Yaw is such a collection…and then some! Your Zen atmospheres and muted revelations are all very well, but give me a poet who speaks for the present age of electronic hallucinations, computerized crowd control and multi-media sleight of mind. Deploying puns, wordplay, TV ads, Tee-Shirt mottoes, speeches, tautologies and common parlance, Lerner exposes the archaeology and etiology of our civilization from silent films to Grand Theft Auto. All are turned in a kaleidoscope of purest abstraction and meaningful nonsense. Lerner is a daredevil who “places his head in the camera,” p.21, and experiences the orderly chaos of things; he charts the traces of a civilization whose collective unconscious, like the half-time patterns of marching bands, are best discerned from the blimp which reflects them to the populace abroad revealing the substance of their dreams, p.23. Lerner splits and riffles his deck of words into a magical sequence of juxtapositions in which disparate ideas, seemingly by accident, fall into perfect arrangements as the phonebook and Bible are merged. What follows is an antipasto of memorable snapshots from the book. Organization is haphazard, catch-as-catch-can, and largely non-existent.

The poet expects to be “convicted on the strength of his indifference to conviction,” p.95. In the hospice, analogy is likened to hypermetropia and “carpets are the color of migraine’. p.94.
How does Proust write? p.24. How does the eye read? Before the invention of movies, did anybody move? p.34 Does invention have a father? Ibid. “In an age of mechanical reproduction, is any sin original?” Ibid. How much of free will is conditioned reflex? When you slip the dogs of Pavlov, war is inevitable. Video games “allow you to select the angle from which you view the action, inspiring a rash of high school massacres,” p.18. In order to “match the plywood finish…we must either be stained or invisible,” p.19.

We are told how “an era of polarized light…has divided the community into subdistances” and cartoons: “…the rabbit has run out of landscape and plugged the shotgun with his finger”p.108. In the legerdemain of Tom and
Jerry, the duck flattened by a frying pan becomes the frying pan. “Open your eyes,” warns Lerner, “you’re still holding the dynamite” p.30.

“The law’s long arm cannot support its heavy hand” p.38
“Does this blood make me look fat? Ibid.
“Tongue worries tooth. Repetition worries referent.” p.52
“When you shatter a store window, you see your own image in the glass.”
“No means no. So does yes.” p.40
“As if you could choose between loving and leaving the weather.” p.43
A zombie workforce sleeps standing up in closed Murphy beds. p.53
“History, screams Hamsun, the junior senator from Wisconsin, will
vindicate my mustache.” p.55
“…an Abraham doll with realistic trembling.” p.57
In a tropism called history, the dark crowd (which doesn’t interact with
light) exerts a gravitational effect on the visible crowd. p.71
“The very existence of concealed space constitutes an ambush. An
abrupt change in sentence structure turns our fire friendly…There is
no describing a weapon that spreads white space.” p.79.
A meditation on physics and faith. p.72
A cure for phobias. p.73

“Women have no desire to travel in outer space. When men have forced (it) the results have been disastrous…The first woman in space is still there.” p.80.
About sensory perception: “The sixth sense…is the ability to perceive the loss of other senses; we have lost this sense.” p.85.
“In my honor they will one day name and electrify a chair. p.88
Black is the new black. Ibid.
“Angels are absences in the snow…” “When it thaws, they will stand up and search for the children they have known.” p.93

To claim that Lerner’s poems demonstrate ingenious genius is redundant. They are frankly uncanny. I can’t begin to describe the profusion of verbo-logico-cultural mots, anti-mots, knots, plots, linguistic tangles and credible non-sequiturs embedded everywhere in this book. “We busy ourselves with what exceeds description.” Lerner scatters consistent inconsistencies all over. On p.45 a private definition of art. On p.44, the sorrow of the astronaut. On p. 49, the serial killer mocks a detective by dumping his victims in a smiley face pattern which greets the investigator every morning with a grimace of red tacks on a map.
p.51 Explores art, color and cameras.
p.111 speaks of health, physical and spiritual.
p.112 describes, “…cutting an adjective and tucking it behind the reader’s
ear like a flower”.
On p.114, The aircraft orients its position employing a “a system of measure
anchored by the apparent daily motion of stars that no longer exist.”

The concluding long poem, Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan, and a few of the shorter poems are essentially political in nature. The author holds a degree in political theory from Brown University. The short poems include a nod to Melville: “I come from a long line of…communards who would prefer not to.” p.96
“Our bombs are dropped from such altitudes our wars have ended by the time they reach their targets.” p.100
The government provides “an infinite progression of final frontiers designed to distract the public from its chest wound”, and further on, with appropriate amour propre: “We will not just sit here being mooned insists the president”. p.102.
The Reagan poems are replete with ironic images of Reagan’s America where the author vows to shoot himself only in self–defense. Where, “Your life isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on”. p.121. Where “meanings detonate at preset depths”. And by way of encouragement, the poet observes: “If you had been hypnotized, silly, you wouldn’t know it”. p.122.
Twenty-One Gun Salute ends with a flurry of pointed asides:

“Let them eat snow.”
“Tear down this wall.”
“Is this thing on?”

The section marked: Didactic Elegy contains several sad and strangely beautiful longer poems commemorating the collapse of the Twin Towers by interlacing the event with an extended set of variations on art, poetry, criticism, interpretation, perception and economics. This work, in its depth and profundity deserves many separate critical essays none of which may be attempted here. Suffice it to say that in reading it, one is aware of distant but audible echoes of Four Quartets, a masterpiece with which Didactic Elegy merits serious comparison.

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