Ben Lerner’s recently published first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, is a great read I’ve recommended to several people (Review here). Given how much I enjoyed it, and the fact that I “like poetry” now, I decided to check out one of Lerner’s earlier poetry collections. I chose the 2006 volume Angle of Yaw.
The book is split into five distinct sections. The first, third and fifth each contain one single, long poem, all dealing with an extended, serious topic. The strongest of these is ‘Didactic Elegy’, the poem in the centre of the book. It is an in-depth exploration of how the historical record – be it written, video, photo or other – removes the power and the meaning from events by rendering horrors replicable and detachable from reality. The central conceit is the familiarity, brought on by proliferation, of the footage of the hijacked planes crashing into the World Trade Center. He writes:
It is difficult to differentiate between the collapse of the towers
and the image of the towers collapsing.
The influence of images is often stronger than the influence of events“
An understandable point – I can picture that video image in a thousand different ways, but almost all of them contain rolling news headlines along the bottom of my mind’s vision. It is the reportage, not the reality, that I (as a non-witness) recall most vividly.
The other two sections of the book, which make up a little more than half of its total, both contain a series of short, single paragraph prose poems. These deal with various topics, and alter in tone. Some are very dark, very serious, some are wry social commentary, some are witty, some abstract, some simple, some dense… Many images, ideas, objects and themes reoccur, but these sections do have a central driving interest in the notion of private and public space. These sections are great fun to read – in turns thought-provoking, occasionally provocative, sometimes shocking, often very funny… There is a variety inherent in the poems that allows a strong, politicised idea to be expanded without the entire book feeling like the Didactic Elegy its central poem titles itself as. This is a strong, interesting collection, and the most impressive use of prose poetry I have yet encountered (though I am mere weeks into my exploration of poetics). The wit and lyrical ingenuity praised in his novel is present much more frequently in his poems (obviously), and this longish collection is definitely worth a go. Great stuff.