“The Lights,” Reviewed: Ben Lerner’s Poetry of Alien Illumination

Sometimes what you see belongs to another world. Stars. City streets on a movie screen. The remembered face of someone gone. You know it is another world because you cannot touch what you see, or because it cannot see you.

Sometimes, though, the border between this world and the other one seems to blur. An eight-year-old boy and his brother are taken by their mother’s friend to the Seattle Aquarium for a sleepover beneath its underwater dome. Sharks swim overhead. Food, the visitors are told, is strictly prohibited, but when the lights dim the mother’s friend produces a bag of orange candies:

They seemed to glow in the dark. My brother was thrilled, but I was horrified, maybe because I was so rarely away from my parents at night that I couldn’t tolerate any sign of unpredictability in my guardian. Or maybe I thought the ban on eating was crucial for our safety, that if the sharks or rockfish somehow sensed the candies, they’d come after them, slamming their cold smooth bodies again and again into the glass until it cracked and four hundred thousand gallons of water came crashing down upon us.

The dome provides a view without the possibility of contact, a neat division of the familiar from the alien. In the child’s mind, though, breaking the aquarium’s rules renders that division dangerously contingent: “It must have shocked Shirley when I started to cry, to panic, repeating no, no, no, as she held the small bag toward me.” The boy refuses the forbidden fruit and, at least in his adult memory, turns his attention to fortifying his would-be Eden’s walls: “I remember a sleepless night, trying to keep the dome intact with the pressure of my gaze, though I probably slept for hours.”

Between the “I” who remembers the sleepless night and the “I” who probably slept for hours is another blurry border, on both sides of which we find Ben Lerner. He tells the story in his fourth collection of poems, “The Lights” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). “All my favorite books,” Lerner writes, “were about built spaces / shading into wilds, worlds, Narnia through the wardrobe / . . . Max’s bedroom becoming jungle, Harold drawing the moon / into existence.” Those books, which he read as a child and which now he reads to his young daughters, suggest a model for the kind of book he wants to be writing.

Lerner, a poet who has found a second life as a novelist, has been attempting versions of that book for nearly twenty years. The title of his first collection, “The Lichtenberg Figures” (2004), refers to the branching patterns that can briefly appear on surfaces after lightning strikes; the implication was that the book’s sonnets were evanescent records of contact, each poem its own glass dome. In “Angle of Yaw” (2006), Lerner began to experiment with prose poems, not unlike the child he describes in one of them: “If you make her a present of a toy, she will discard it and play with the box. And yet she will only play with a box that once contained a toy.” Just so, the “built spaces” of prose allowed Lerner to play with the poetry they seemed once to contain, to draw potential pleasures into existence. But actual life felt distant, ironized; Lerner was always retreating from experience, or, in his own words, sleeping through it. In “Mean Free Path” (2010), he wrote of finally being ready for “the recurring / dream of waking.” Poetry was a hidden door, not so far from a wardrobe, that could lead into the world from which he’d withdrawn.

Cartoon by David Ostow and Lindsay Arber

In “The Lights,” Lerner has returned to that dream: “A dream in prose of poetry, a long dream of waking.” Like much of Lerner’s work, the book is full of uneasy divisions. But no matter the axes along which they’re drawn—prose and poetry, parents and children, life and literature—the point is that on one side of the border the world often looks disenchanted, that now and then we are granted glimpses of the other side, and that our own world can hold, however provisionally, the other’s reflected glow.

In one of the longer poems in this book, that glow looks literal:

Some say the glowing spheres near Route 67
are paranormal, others dismiss them as
atmospheric tricks: static, swamp gas, reflections
of headlights and small fires, but why dismiss
what misapprehension can establish, our own
illumination returned to us as alien, as sign?
They’ve built a concrete viewing platform
lit by low red lights which must appear
mysterious when seen from what it overlooks.
Tonight I see no spheres, but project myself
and then gaze back, an important trick because
the goal is to be on both sides of the poem,
shuttling between the you and I.

If the lines sound familiar, that may be because you have read them before. Toward the end of “10:04” (2014), Lerner’s second novel, the protagonist (also named Ben) is at a writing residency in Marfa, Texas. In some kind of hallucinated scene, he joins the ghost of the poet Robert Creeley on an excursion to view the famous “Marfa Lights,” doesn’t see them, and then writes a poem that includes those lines.

But that poem, merely excerpted in the novel, returns, like a long-discarded toy, in “The Lights.” The narrator of “10:04” had gone to Marfa to work on a novel about a fabricated correspondence between poets, but after writing these lines tells us, “I decided to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them.” Lyric poetry, in other words, might seem otherworldly, but for Lerner it’s better understood as “our own / illumination returned to us as alien.” Once upon a time, we read a novel and felt as though we were in a poem; now we read the poem and feel as though we’re in a novel.

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