A Review of Ben Lerner & Thomas Demand's Blossom — November 28, 2015
by Christopher Nelson
Since the publication of Mean Free Path in 2010, poetry lovers have hungered for more of Ben Lerner's breakthrough style; we've now outwaited the hiatus in which he wrote two novels. Blossom (MACK 2015) is a collaboration between Lerner and photographer Thomas Demand, whose beautiful images of blossom-filled boughs shot sequentially from dawn till night fill two-thirds of the book. Despite the fact that Blossom has only twelve pages of poetry by Lerner (one long poem), it is a book that every admirer of his work should own.
The challenges and pleasures of Lerner's poetry in Blossom, as with Mean Free Path, are the multiplicities of meaning that arise from his syntactic difficulty. Fractal-like in their unfolding, his thoughts don't clearly begin or end but continually transform; what seems to be, for example, an appositive that ends a sentence becomes the subject and verb of a new one:
Fail to mention fission or decay
In the traditional ways, focusing instead
Then renouncing focus, a shimmering effect
In the middle distance, there is a monk
Likening this world to an echo …"
Lerner's style, based in part on disrupting syntactic expectations, has developed since Mean Free Path, where disjunctures were more overt, less smooth—though not demonstrative of less skill. In Blossom his decisions about syntax and line are simply different; here he has written a more fluid but equally stylized syntax. Where the splices between thoughts and broken sentences were allowed to show in Mean Free Path, in Blossom the sentence parts are less visibly grafted onto each other. These differences are due in part to his omission from Blossom nearly all signals of end punctuation, which allows for a wind-like flowing of each line into the next, a gracefulness he sustains from beginning to end.
There are moments when Lerner's poem feels ekphrastic, in that it references the images, but usually the poem's aboutness isn't overt, which, as with his syntax, is another challenge we derive pleasure from. This fluidity of subject takes us from clear and expected referent (blossoms) to literary, geographic, and cultural allusions. One page begins, "In Boston they explode each spring, the cherries / Widow us for a week," and it ends, "Pink petals against the wine-dark clay." This range of reference—from, arguably, the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 to Homer's canonical "wine-dark sea"—demonstrates Lerner's unerring ability to surprise, but moreover, it exemplifies his adroit use of various poetic tools: allusion, imagery, syntactic doubling, symbolism (spring as rebirth from carnage), and quotation. On the same page, Lerner recontextualizes Robert Browning's version of the Battle of Marathon, and in so doing nods to a central topic of our zeitgeist: xenophobia. Quoting Browning, he writes, Pheidippides "'carried the news of our victory over Persia … He never said he was a Muslim.'"
This undisguised—but somewhat ambivalent—inclusion of political subject matter is also something readers of Lerner's earlier poetry will recognize. In Angle of Yaw (2006) a long poem titled "Twenty-one Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan" begins, "I am wearing a Mikhail Gorbachev Halloween mask," and Mean Free Path has numerous humorous and terrifying lines like, "My numb / Rebarbative people, put down your Glocks / and your Big Gulps." It would be reductive, however, to say that Blossom is a political poem. Lerner knows that the political doesn't separate from the personal and the mundane, so the political surfaces here not satirically, not didactically, not polemically but as a matter of fact. Amid the inundating beauty of a blossoming grove in spring, "A bomb or blazon / Breaks the beloved into parts," and then we move on, not because a life is trivial or because the speaker is callous but because we continually oscillate in Lerner's poem between micro- and macro-level views of the human experience. Soon we are asked to consider "the sun at night" and "the song of how one tectonic plate / Moves beneath another." Given the shifting subjects, that his voice remains consistent throughout an entire book is an artful achievement. This vocal consistency owes much to formal structures—in Blossom, strictly seven tercets per page—, the wildness of style elegantly tempered by a sophistication of form.
Equally masterful to Lerner's syntactic and formal innovations are his tonal acrobatics; he is able to address even grave subjects with a playful wit while not diminishing their seriousness. This was true from his first book to the present; in The Lichtenberg Figures (2004) we read: "There is suffering somewhere else, / but here in Kansas our acquaintances / rape us tenderly and remain unchanged"; and from Blossom: "The way lava cools into obsidian is how / The vanguard becomes an institution." Seriousness and amusement exist side by side, so do the banal and remarkable, and in this way he captures the coeval complexities and ethical ambiguities of our time, rendering the noises of the twenty-first century into song. With Blossom, Lerner proves again that he is one our most profoundly contemporary poets.
I will conclude with a charming fact: the photographed blossoms that fill the pages of the book are photos of fake flowers. They are beautiful, nonetheless, in the true sense of artifice: the pleasures of a thing perfectly made. Demand's images are gorgeous and moody, and one doesn't feel offense at what could be called a deception—because of their beauty, illusory as it may be. It is in this sense that Lerner's poems are most sincerely ekphrastic: they are, of course, like Demand's flowers, wholly made things, but Lerner's poetry richly manifests the paradox of art: that a fabricated thing can show us the real at times more effectively than our own eyes when evaluating, confronting, and, hopefully, accepting the world.