Sunday, August 23, 2009

Review: The roof falls in

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It’s a rare occasion when you get metafiction and philosophy completely infused into a poetic volume without it feeling too pragmatic or instructional. Usually it comes out harsh and bitter to the tongue, a piece of burnt toast upon which rests soggy eggs. And rare it is when careful cadence and diction, argument and anecdote are the focus of such a book.

Nominated for the National Book Award, Ben Lerner’s Angle of Yaw is that volume. Lerner, a young poet from Brown University, has produced something that reverberates in the mind long after the pages of the book have closed and rested upon the shelf. Borrowing from Russian formalism – if I may dare – Lerner is able to defamiliarise his subject (and readers) to make the writing process, the concept of films and media, the world of theory fresh and anew. Never a dull moment cuts across the pages: ‘The fruit is star-shaped when cut in cross section and is therefore called star fruit. Our people often name an object after the manner in which we destroy it.’
Lines that seem to be throwaway shards of wisdom, pregnant with philosophy may grace each stanza, but it doesn’t make this volume overbearing or ponderous or even self-important. Angle of Yaw is split into five parts, two of which are eponymous to the title of the book. ‘Begetting Stadia’, the first canto or part, is the most jarring. The poems within aren’t as related to each other, but they create the initial push for waves that will echo later on in the volume. A sense of positivity and negativity start with the first poem, and Lerner’s poetic narrator commences with his project’s aim – as if invoking it from the gods: ‘Resembling its shape / and therefore suggesting its function: // a wave. // Or repeating its shape / and therefore undoing its function // a wave, // which I will here attempt to situate / in the broader cognitive process / of turning the page.’ The reader thus is actively involved as his lines come to light, as the narrator goes on to say, ‘Reading is important because it makes you look down, an expression of shame. . . . When you window-shop, when you shatter a store window, you see your own image in the glass.’
As the book goes deeper and deeper into thoughts, it becomes more unified – although mysteriously, as the amount of subjects Lerner tackles grows too. Perhaps the part/canto that is most impressive is ‘Didactic Elegy’, which is basically a philosophical essay in verse that begins peripherally but then makes it central as theme and subject the towers of the World Trade Center falling. Unlike some who perhaps use it as a crutch, Lerner brings a sort of theory into the image, suggesting that the art of memorialising in fact does the opposite, makes it common. The more we watch the video of the towers crash down, the less real it becomes: ‘The critic watches the image of the towers collapsing. / She remembers less and less about the towers collapsing each time she watches the image of the towers collapsing. // The critic feels guilty viewing the image like a work of art, / but guilt here stems from an error of cognition, / as the critic fails to distinguish between an event / and the event of the event’s image.’
The argument of ‘Didactic Elegy’ builds a wonderful discussion, and Lerner guides us in not such a didactic way. We feel confident of our decisions about what his narrator is saying throughout. And then he drops a bombshell in the end, which basically sums up the wonderful paradoxes and issues brought up in Angle of Yaw, as if straight from a JM Coetzee or TS Eliot work:
When violence becomes aware of its mediacy and loses its object
it will begin to resemble love.
Love is negative because it dissolves
all particulars into an experience of form.
Refusing to assign meaning to an event is to interpret it lovingly.
The meaninglessness of the drawing is therefore meaningful
and the failure to seek out value is heroic.
Is this all that remains of poetry?
Ignorance that sees itself is elegy.

2 comments:

Kari said…

Gonna be honest, Sal…this sounds like something I would have had to read for college, skimmed to get my assignments done, then burned. Ha, I hate poetry.

This is why you are our intellectual reviewer. 🙂

Salvatore said…

Ha! Yeah I understand the hate on contemporary poetry. But this was pretty wonderful.