(REVIEW) The Clichés, by Ben Lerner & R.H. Quaytman
Rowland Bagnall traverses the branching strands of Ben Lerner’s writing through the lens of his latest work with R.H. Quatyman, a pamphlet, The Clichés (The Song Cave, 2022), interrogating the writer’s interest in instances of failure, glitch and anticlimax and the inherent artificiality of language itself.
In the beginning of speech the question / Of frontiers is taken up again. – John Ashbery, ‘Litany’
On the run from a pursuing MI5 agent, the narrator of Borges’s story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (1941) reflects, in a moment of respite, on the ambitious double-project of his great-grandfather, Ts’ui Pên: to write an infinite, expansive novel and to build a sprawling labyrinth ‘in which all men would lose themselves’. With the help of Doctor Stephen Albert, an eminent Sinologist in whose house he takes refuge, the narrator discovers, in typical Borgesian style, that the novel and the labyrinth are somehow co-extensive, ‘an enormous guessing game, or parable, in which the subject is time’. ‘In all fiction’, explains Albert, ‘when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of the others’. Here, however, ‘he chooses – simultaneously – all of them’, creating ‘various futures, various times which […] branch out and bifurcate in other times’. ‘The explanation is obvious’, Albert continues: ‘The Garden of Forking Paths is a picture, incomplete yet not false, of the universe such as Ts’ui Pên conceived it to be.’
The image of these branching strands, ‘a dizzyingly growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times’, like ice freezing its way across the surface of a lake, is an image of narrative possibility, one that has become synonymous, in the twenty-first century, with the counters of the multiverse (see Stephanie Burt’s recent piece for The New Yorker. It is an image lurking somewhere, too, behind Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 (2014), an exploration of the ways we build and live by future-facing narratives, something to ground us in the present tense. The novel is saturated with moments of narrative possibility, ‘alive with multiple futures’, from Bastien-Lepage’s painting Joan of Arc (1879), which shows her ‘being pulled into the future’, to Marty McFly’s dissolving hand – measuring his erasure from the current timeline – in the Sci-Fi staple Back to the Future (1985). At the same time, Lerner is also drawn to instances of failure, glitch, and anticlimax. Certain futures in the novel have a quality of non-arrival, even of miscarriage: New York prepares for the onset of a large tropical superstorm (Hurricane Irene) which ultimately loses its momentum ‘before landfall’; the Challenger, a NASA Space Shuttle that launched in 1986, breaks up before achieving orbit; the novel closes with a sonogram, suggesting complications for an unborn child: ‘Confirming a heartbeat lowers the risk’, notes the narrator, Ben, ‘although the chances the creature will never make landfall remain significant’.
Lerner’s interest in these many futures, whether they arrive or not, is closely linked to his engagement with the possibilities of language. In The Lichtenberg Figures (2004), a collection of sonnets, Lerner manipulates language from a range of fixed and rigid contexts – advertising, corporate jargon, bumper stickers, turns of phrase – spinning his fragments through the washer-dryer, exposing their strangenesses while hinting at the forking paths that language hasn’t taken yet. ‘In my day, / we were reasonable men’, reads one poem, ‘Even you women and children / were reasonable men’. ‘I wish all difficult poems were profound’, concludes another: ‘Honk if you wish all difficult poems were profound’. The Lichtenberg figures in question nod in Borges’s direction, too, referring to the fractal, tree-like shapes created by high-voltage charges; typically captured on glass or acrylic, the figures often turn up on the skin of people struck by lightning.
Lerner delights in the inherent artificiality of language, its material properties. Indeed, the clunkiness of human language forms the basis of The Hatred of Poetry (2016), in which he outlines his belief in the essential failure of poems. In line with the American critic Allen Grossman, Lerner describes poetry’s ambition ‘to get beyond the finite or the historical […] and to reach the transcendent or divine’. ‘You’re moved to write a poem’, he writes, ‘But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms’. For Lerner (as for Grossman), this compromise reveals a gap between the between the ‘virtual’ and the ‘actual’. As Shelley puts it his ‘Defence of Poetry’ (1821), even ‘the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conception of the past’.
To read through Lerner’s poetry to date – The Lights, his fourth collection, will appear in 2023 – no area of language has received more attention or manipulation than the wide tundras of cliché: language at its most exhausted, the farthest it can get from ‘the transcendent or divine’. With The Clichés (2022), a limited-edition pamphlet (and collaboration with the artist R. H. Quaytman), Lerner continues to explore the ways that language crystallizes into meaning, particularly the oddities of speaking and communication; how the language we intend can end up far wide of the mark.
On the surface, The Clichés stages a conversation between two people in bed (a man and a woman, perhaps engaged in an affair); their conversation slides over a wide range of ideas and subjects, from pregnancy, childcare and growing up in a bi-lingual household to Blade Runner (1982), prescription meds and the paintings of René Magritte. A reference to Spinoza’s writing on the aleph, the silent letter that begins the Hebrew alphabet, suggests not only another link to Borges – see The Aleph and Other Stories (1949) – but to a recent short story of Lerner’s, ‘Café Loup’ (2022), whose narrator spends the story choking on a steak caught in his windpipe; glancing back at Lerner’s previous output, it doesn’t seems unlikely that The Clichés and ‘Café Loup’ may turn out to be extracted from (I guess) a future novel.
Threaded between these references, the couple are at work compiling ‘a list of things that never get old’, the un-cliché-able, things so striking and essential, so ‘already old’, that they remain ‘Outside of time’: ‘headlights reflected in the eyes of animals’, ‘Open flames of any sort’, ‘eye contact on parallel subway cars’. ‘Are these clichés[?]’, one of the couple asks. ‘Only if you write them down’, replies the other: ‘The thing itself / Never gets old’, the line breaking where one speaker takes over from another.
If the act of writing – turning the world to language – somehow deadens what is written about, a kind of rust or calcification, then Lerner is interested in discovering how to soften, slow, or stop the process; to shift language beyond ‘the finitude of its terms’ in such a way that gestures to the ‘The thing itself’, in the direction of the virtual. Maybe this accounts for his interest in ‘virga, my favourite kind of weather’, as he writes in The Hatred of Poetry: ‘streaks of water or ice particles trailing from a cloud that evaporate before they reach the ground’, rain ‘that never quite closes the gap between heaven and earth’, flickering somewhere in between them. In Lerner’s poetry, one way to attempt this is to keep language from getting stuck, to create an environment where words are endlessly recycled and repurposed, open to the possibility that they may never mean one thing. This is true, certainly, of Lerner’s use of found and clichéd language in The Lichtenberg Figures, and even more true of his third collection, Mean Free Path (2010), whose stanzas seem to know that ‘There is no way to read this / once’, an experience, in the words of poet Sarah Howe, ‘like turning over two pages by accident and then carrying on regardless’.
Much has been written – not least by Lerner – about the influence of John Ashbery, here. In an article of 2010, Lerner relates ‘the bizarre power of Ashbery’s best poetry’, citing its ability ‘to describe the time of its own reading in the time of its own reading’, a particular flow of content and language that manages to ‘keep sense from either cementing or slipping away entirely’. Lerner recycles parts of this essay (appropriately enough) in his novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), which follows a young Ashberian poet’s Fulbright scholarship to Spain. Lerner borrows the title of his novel from a poem in Ashbery’s second collection, The Tennis Court Oath (1962), a book that makes frequent use of cut-ups, overheard and misheard language, disjointed and dislocated, free to be arranged and reassociated ‘in the time of its own reading’.
In The Clichés, Lerner deploys a formal strategy to represent something resembling communication in construction. The couple’s conversation unfolds without the usual punctuation, one speaker beginning while the other is still on the move; Lerner opts for line breaks as the mark of a new utterance, creating a kind of blended crosstalk, a babble of related fragments slipping over one another. On the pamphlet’s cover, a painting of Quaytman’s shows a petal-like arrangement of six lolling, interlocking tongues, floating in an empty void, reminiscent of the spot-lit motormouth of Beckett’s restless monologue Not I (1972).
Very often in The Clichés, the sentence of a given speaker is cut off like a piece of string, not permitted to ‘make landfall’. ‘You have it but you don’t have it’, read lines from Ashbery’s poem ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’, quoted by Lerner in his novel. ‘You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other’. Stronger than this, perhaps, is the presence of Ashbery’s massive, double-columned ‘Litany’, opening his eighth collection As We Know (1979). While Ashbery’s introductory note suggests the two columns to be ‘simultaneous but independent monologues’, it is impossible not to wonder how the two strands interact, weaving a third, ephemeral thing in the white spaces between. Indeed, by ‘creating a text that can be read both across and down, and sometimes even diagonally,’ writes Marjorie Perloff of the poem, ‘Ashbery has fulfilled his own earlier aim of producing [as he notes of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation (1956)] “an open field of narrative possibilities”.
As in ‘Litany’, the voices in The Clichés appear to be joined, at moments, by the presence of a third thing – thin, almost invisible, a relative, perhaps, of Emily Dickinson’s ‘narrow Fellow in the Grass’. It may well be Lerner or a species of narrator, waiting for a scene change. Whatever (or whoever?) it is, though, it seems related to the text’s attempt to keep itself from hardening, to remain unfixed and flowing, to ‘never get old’. In the process of their conversation – their collaborative utterance – it’s as if the couple set in motion something like the poem speaking for itself, a thread of language unconnected to a speaker: not the characters, not Lerner, but the slim voice of the poem. I’m reminded of another conversation between Lerner and the writer Aaron Kunin. Discussing their first collections and their use of appropriated language, Kunin asks the following: ‘Do you realize that we’ve just congratulated each other for poems that are essentially found objects?’ ‘Yes’, comes the response from Lerner, ‘we’re complimenting each other on disappearing from our poems. It’s like applauding a speaker for not showing up’. ‘I have never been here. / Understand’, ends one of The Lichtenberg Figures: ‘You have never seen me’.
There’s something in The Clichés about the subjectivity of voice, about how language forms experience and how experience belongs to us and (mostly) us alone. Coming into contact with another voice – another mind, another kind of language – two subjectivities collide, collaborating, contradicting, even undermining one another. A few times in their conversation, the couple stumble on the phrase ‘That’s not a thing’, a ‘confident assertion of nonexistence’ aimed at one person’s experience. ‘But my question is’, one of the two continues, ‘does the experience then disappear, the next time you’re walking through […] the park. Or does the fact that you could imagine it of the world mean it’s still part of the world[?]’ How much of experience, of language, meaning, understanding, do we have in common, Lerner seems to ask, and how much are we on our own? The pamphlet ends with a discussion about the nature of collective dreams, knitted together by the dreamers, shaping ‘their dreams into one composite so everybody could say, yes, that’s what I dreamt’, a dream constructed by ‘consensus’, sharing ‘the same reality’.
For Lerner, there is clearly value (a kind of force?) in what happens not only when two or more voices collide, but when they slide into a song they share and sing in unison. I’m tempted to connect this to the ghosts in Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), George Saunders’s eccentric chorus, although I’m not sure what that thought would be. (‘And it seemed we had passed the point of choosing’, says Hans Vollman at the novel’s climax: ‘The knowledge of what we were was strong within us now, and would not be denied’). Instead, I’m drawn back to the close of The Topeka School (2019), Lerner’s most-recent novel – the third in a loose trilogy – in which Adam Gordon, Lerner’s proxy protagonist, attends a protest of the Trump administration’s immigration policy permitting family separation. The scene ends with a ‘human microphone’, a way to deliver the speech of an individual to a large crowd without the use of amplification equipment, where the speaker’s speech is echoed back, yelled by a closely-gathered group. ‘It embarrassed me, it always had’, says Gordon, ‘but I forced myself to participate, to be part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning how to speak again’.
Lerner’s interest in speech and in collective experience – dreaming or protesting, speaking or writing, even standing side-by-side with someone viewing the same piece of art – is related, I think, to the third, slim, not-quite-present thing created in The Clichés, hovering between the speakers, like rain that never meets the ground. As Lerner says to Catherine Barnett, ‘An individual voice is always really corporate – I mean made up of various voices, a conglomeration – and beyond the control of the speaker’. Whether The Clichés will come to play a role in one Lerner’s larger projects remains to be seen. In the meantime, it offers up the latest note in his ongoing and expanding utterance, ‘a dizzyingly growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times’.
Text: Rowland Bagnall
Image: Rowland Bagnall