Ben Lerner’s ‘The Lights’ Is a Poetry of Withdrawal

Lingering in the ‘instant before music’, the poet and novelist’s new collection is grounded by sharp materiality

BY Sadie Rebecca Starnes in Books , Opinion | 07 DEC 23

The Lights (2023) opens with a familiar song, Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ (1855): ‘I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love …’ It’s a summer of protest and pandemic in Brooklyn and Ben Lerner is pulling handfuls of Whitman from a patch of Fort Greene Park, hearing him in the loose earth and the shattering glass. ‘The poet wrote’, Lerner continues in ‘The Stone’ (2021), ‘which is neither speech nor singing, but a grassy area between them, cordoned off by the cops.’

Book cover for Ben Lern's 'The Lights'. Black and white; black circle at the centre with white dispersed pixels
Ben Lerner, The Lights, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Granta

Lerner’s latest collection of verse and prose lingers in what the writer referred to in ‘The Son’ (2021) as that ‘instant before music’. Song, he argues in ‘Auto-Tune’ (2011) – via introduction to the first English poet, Caedmon, an illiterate 7th century cowherd that ‘didn’t know any songs’, that couldn’t even sing and so ‘withdrew from others in / embarrassment’ – is poetry’s original form. When the cowherd is miraculously gifted with a song of creation in his sleep, ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’, English has its first poem: a folk song. To Lerner, however, it was the poet’s withdrawing, rather than the hymn itself, that was the foundational moment. What follows in The Lights are such withdrawals: the perfect pitch withheld (whether in baseball or singing); Lerner’s childhood terror of introducing a song, his terror of singing. He fails to understand lyrics when sung to music, so he memorizes the words separately. The poet loafs in this breach, even as he strains to give voice to that ancient dream of poetry. It’s an impossible dream among ‘all the beautiful conspiracies’ – a word, he reminds us in its dissection, that means ‘to breathe together’ (‘The Theory’). In this way, even time itself can be suspended – another form of withdrawal – if, as he relates to an unborn child in ‘The Son’, ‘everyone breathes together’.

Guided along by Whitman, as Dante was guided by Virgil in The Divine Comedy (c.1308–21), Lerner watches the lights over the East River – firefly, ambulance, alien? – and it’s in this suspended illumination that he wanders and works. In ‘The Dark Threw Patches Down Upon Me Also’ (2013), Lerner follows Whitman as he nurses a divided country, bridging people, place and time. He admires him as a poet of the soil that somehow remains light, ‘dissolved’ even, being ‘emptied of history so he can ferry across it’.  Levitation, after all, derives from the Latin levitas, meaning ‘lightness’. ‘And you must inhabit it, let your body be the bridge,’ he writes in ‘The Chorus’ (2021).

A picture of Ben Lerner in black and white
Ben Lerner portrait, undated. Photograph: Catherine Barnett

What gives gravity to The Lights, keeping it in this atmosphere, is a sharp materiality – both in terms of subjects and of the earth itself: the heavy metals extracted for profit; the softer ones crushed into pigment. For all the lights that draw the eyes upward in this poetry, Lerner’s language is just as grounded with mica, gold and lapis lazuli as he glazes the violet hour over Fort Greene. Any reader of Lerner – or of frieze, where he’s a published critic – will know of his flirtations with the visual arts. Like William Carlos Williams before him, Lerner writes through and around artworks, also in collaboration with artists like Thomas Demand (Blossom, 2015) and Anna Ostoya (‘The Polish Rider’, 2016). The Lights similarly considers the sculptural heft of Jay DeFeos The Rose (1958–66). He employs art’s very form in ‘Untitled (Triptych)’ (2016), a poem whose panels open and close to blend epochs and annunciations, the blues of Homer, Afghanistan and Ambien. The triptych both protects and exposes its painting, but decay is inevitable. The halo will flake but, before it does, it’s a shared conspiracy of earth and light, artist and audience, a miracle suspended. ‘The song goes on forever,’ he tells us, ‘then it stops.’

In ‘The Son’, Lerner is composing a song. He’s recording this into a phone so badly cracked that it gets glass in his fingers: ‘I wrote it in a dream, the second-oldest song in the world […] from and for the future.’ This is a song for his unborn son, for us, and he wants us to fan out and ‘take the bridges’. This song turns I into i, Old English into new. The lights dissolve here into his song, and are no longer above or behind us, unseen, but all around – like people, music and this city – ‘the way light is’. It’s not some phenomenon that lifts us, but the O of a poet apostrophizing, of a mouth about to speak, to talk, to sing.

Main image: Ben Lerner portrait, undated. Photograph: Catherine Barnett

Sadie Rebecca Starnes is an artist, writer and editor from North Carolina, USA. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times, among others, and she’s had solo exhibitions in Tokyo, Japan, and New York, USA. She lives and works in Brooklyn, USA.