A friend and I were a bit late on an evening last January when we went to hear Ben Lerner read at Open Books in Seattle. I was clutching my copy of Mean Free Path, Ben’s third book. Thirty minutes before the reading was to start, the crowd was already spilling out the door. Of course, it’s a tiny space, but still. Dammit!
I’ve re-read this volume slowly again, and then again during a 2 week trip I made this past February, traveling by plane, bus, and train to visit friends on the East Coast. And during that journey, I wrote a long poem that emerged as a response to his book. I’ve also purchased and read his second book, Angle of Yaw, with this same zeal, and plan to also read his first book, The Lichtenberg Figures. It’s been rare, over the past decade, that I have gotten so involved with a single poet. I have a voracious appetite for reading poetry, and there certainly are several poets in the past for whom I felt I needed to read everything of theirs I could get my hands on (for example, Leonard Cohen, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, Mark Doty) but that has not so much been the case more recently, as I find more and more diverse poets that I feel a need to at least be acquainted with.
So why the love affair with Ben’s work? I don’t think I can answer that with a critique of his work, although I know that I love his cadences, his mind-blowing honesty, the way his repetitions echo and reverberate, the way he acknowledges how he loves, the words he chooses, the words he leaves out, the way he can blend huge events and ideas with a stamp of personal identity and personal cost. I love his sense of humor and dead-serious playfulness. I love the probably false sense that his writing gives me that I know him. That he is allowing me to know him. Perhaps I do know him.
I almost want to read the entire volume again, to choose a stanza to leave you with. But you mustn’t stop here.
In a voice so soft it sounds like coughing
Blood into a handkerchief in Russia
The minor novel scales. The weather holds
Forming patterns. I am in Brooklyn
Over Denver, imagining October
Light playing on the body of a friend
Written by Tolstoy. Does that make sense
Or should I describe it with my hands
It’s hard not to take the music personally