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Angle of Yaw is my first exposure to Mr. Lerner, but I hope not the last. I am in no hurry to reach for another collection of his as I am still in the process of happily digesting this one. I have read each of the sections a few times, gaining more of a sense of the poet's skill, point of view, and incisiveness with each reading. It's a rarity, nowadays, if not an impossibility, and certainly a welcome breath of fresh air, to read (and re-read) and discover an approach to poetry that doesn't cave in with writing that's cheap in sentiment, easy to anticipate, overtly political or emotionally strained.
Pick up almost any recent "collection" of poems--from the college clique making the rounds, to what lately passes for meaningful or original coming out of the big tent readings--and you'll see what I mean. Sure, there are a lot of good poets who have carved out their niche and stayed fairly consistent from book to book. But it is stupendously rare nowadays for any poet to put out a collection that is really a collection, that is really more than a series of poems that sort of holds together. Instead, one runs across collection after collection, each with a few stand-out poems sprinkled among a lot of filler. It is as if the poet went into a recording studio with only a few hit songs knowing full well that to make an album meant fudging time (and honesty) with cover songs. The poets have either lost the knack or grown too lazy to challenge themselves, to say nothing of the reader. Remember her? That amazingly bright and quite particular reader in need of conversion, self-assurance, surprise? Mr. Lerner never lets her out of his sight.
Angle of Yaw lets us appreciate the beauty and the subtlty of profound and apolitical protest, with parts both comic and tragic, lighthearted and horrible. We are always amused. We re-read out of joy and surprise and deep reflection. We the readers are discovering something new and it comes as a relief, a huge surprise! Let me count the reasons why: it has structure (not just some poems that are related because they appear in the same book); it has density (not obscurity for obscurity's sake); and it illicits truths about how we live and who we are (not without troubling implications).
I'm not entirely sure what I can say about Angle of Yaw that has not already been said dozens of times over, and I believe that's the first time I've ever said anything of the sort about a book of poetry. Angle of Yaw has become a bona fide poetry-world sensation, appearing on any number of best-of-the-decade lists and inspiring outright awe in critics and readers alike. Given such a buildup, I went into it with my skeptical loins girded, but aside from one misstep, Angle of Yaw actually lives up to the hype.
Finding a piece of this book to quote is next to impossible, as I kept seeing quotable pieces. Page after page after page of them. Almost every bit of this book is well-done, so I ended up just opening to a random page:
"People with all manner of phobia, a fear of heights or crowds or marketplaces, public speaking or blood or prime numbers, have been known to overcome their panic by wearing glasses, not with corrective lenses, but with lenses of plain shatterproof plastic, which not only impose a mediate plane between them and the object of their fear, but apply a comforting pressure to the bridge of the nose. When you encounter a person seized by terror, softly squeeze this bony structure, and he will be instantaneously subdued. In an age of contact lenses and laser surgery, it is safe to assume that a person who persists in wearing glasses in undergoing treatment." (--"Angle of Yaw")
All the hallmarks of what make so much of Lerner's stuff so good are there, the unexpected juxtapositions, the humor, the rhythm, the absurdity of it all. The book is divided into five sections, three longer poems ("longer" here meaning a few pages), with sections two and four being halves of "Angle of Yaw", a large collection of the short pieces of which you see an example above. (It is representative of the style of pieces to be found there, both in structure and in quality.) The first two "other" poems are also very good, with the book's sole misstep being the last, "Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan". Lerner is a political poet, but throughout the rest of the book he keeps it subtle and funny, not letting it get in the way of his considerable poetic talent; the Reagan poem, on the other hand, just falls flat, listless, overtaken by the weight of the message Lerner is so obviously straining to get across. But if you ignore that last piece, though, this is a fantastic book, one likely to make my 25 best reads of the year list. ****
Here is an homage to logic, a la Ben Lerner: "Monsieur, please accept this hole we have cut into your chest. Accept this hole as a gift. For your chest has asked for a place to store air." To be clear, the preceding was not written by Ben Lerner, only mechanized by the logic he uses in Angle of Yaw. Here is Ben Lerner: "The public is outrage. Kindergarteners simulate bayonet fighting with the common domestic fowl. Does this blood look good on me? Does this blood make me look fat?" You can hopefully detect the common mechanics between the two quotations. The juxtaposition as self-defeating and self-vindicating logic. The comfort with the absolutely ridiculous.
This is Ben Lerner in all his majesty. And quite honestly, Long live the logical love brought in under cover of all absurdities! And long live the logic of loving contradictions. And for Lerner's benefit, Long live the dark line drawn on white paper, and the negative lyric, and the logical structure evacuated of content so that all that's left is a logical scaffold that may or may not warrant appreciation. And, maybe, expletive to every appreciation you might want to pay here.
Because, Ladies and Gentlemen, Ben Lerner's Angle of Yaw is a land run on this giant, imaginative plane that resides inside his talent. Each of those little prose blocks in the "Angle of Yaw" sections is just one of the lots he's staked out for his performances. They're little plots where he can fail, fail miserably even. It's OK. His poem "Didactic Elegy" should make that point clear. Because he's put the critic in her place. And he's put the poem in its place. And he's put historic events that my cause you to reevaluate the poems in their place. And he's even determined what should happen so that a work can be considered a masterpiece.
Reading Angles of Yaw is akin to walking into an art installation, with all the pieces fit along one wall of imaginative space, or multiple imaginative spaces, if you're counting. And what you should feel while you're standing there is that you're part of the American public, an American public that lived through the Reagan Era, who is vulnerable to advertising culture and political rhetoric. There is a mission statement: "The right to have it both ways is inalienable or it isn't." And as soon as you can see how that mission is not a contradiction, then you have finally settled on an impossibly inhuman existence that is at the very base of appreciating Ben Lerner's poetry.
Essentially, whatever might be said about Angles of Yaw will have already been addressed by Lerner. He is a logic that is clearly illogical, and yet in his illogic, he can be used in an argument, and when the argument is finished the reader will feel as though there is just now a very logical statement that Ben Lerner made. It is the nature of tense contradiction that Frederic Jameson claims is the promise of our postmodern experience. It is a contraction akin to the imaginary number in mathematics. It can't exist, and yet it does exist, and it is regularly calculated for.
This book is an astounding work from possibly the most put-together poet of his generation. Lerner picks up where poets like John Ashbery and John Berryman left off, finding a way for abstraction to finally seem relevant again and not seem like a rip-off of the greats who came before him. The language is charged with energy and feeling without falling into the pit that so many MFA's have fallen into of disgustingly rich language without the backing of emotional/philosophical substance. Definitely one of the most exciting books I've read in a long time.
Wow! It's rare that a book of poetry can mix technical precision, moments of lyric beauty, and thoughtful political analysis. Lerner's critique of the social effects of our externalized view of ourself is insightful, yet rather than descending into didacticism, the book is in turns funny, beautiful, personal, and always engaging. Highly recommended!