Angle of Yaw
Ben Lerner
Copper Canyon Books, $15 (paper)

Siste Viator
Sarah Manguso
Four Way Books, $14.95 (paper)

In her 1967 essay “The Aesthetics of Silence,” Susan Sontag points to a growing tendency among writers to create work that tries “to out-talk language, or to talk oneself into silence.” This “devaluation of language”—due in part to the “unlimited ‘technological reproduction’ of both printed language and speech” as well as “the degenerations of public language within the realms of politics and advertising and entertainment”—has only increased over the past four decades. So, too, has artists’ tendency to reclaim mass-cultural language and use it against itself. Ben Lerner’s Angle of Yaw and Sarah Manguso’s Siste Viator, two second books from a pair of our finest younger poets, exemplify two ways in which poets repurpose “contaminated” public language to make of it something insightful, instructive, consoling, and even beautiful.

Lerner’s highly ambitious, National Book Award–nominated Angle of Yaw derives its language largely from newscasts, movies, print media, pop music, politics, even the self-help industry—in other words, from all the noise that fills the empty public space of early-21st-century consumer society. He also samples the more privately traveled, quieter spheres of literature, philosophy, history, and religion, but seemingly always in order to reveal language, meaning, and even thought itself as things received almost exclusively secondhand. Lerner’s aim is to juxtapose discordant elements of noise such that their collective racket cancels each component out, leaving behind a language purged by negation—refreshed, defiant, and wholly self-aware.

Taken as a whole, Angle of Yaw, which, at 127 pages, is somewhat long for a poetry collection, forms a kind of argument against the evils of commercialized language, of language used to overwhelm the public with spectacle and to sell the comforts and trappings of a lifestyle. Two lengthy sequences of untitled prose poems, both in sections called “Angle of Yaw” (the angle between an aircraft’s longitudinal axis and its line of travel, as seen from above) are punctuated by three extended poems in verse, two of which are unimpeachably good. But the meat of the book is the prose.

Lerner’s prose poems can be divided rather neatly, if simplistically, into two kinds: short narratives or essays treating a single topic and fragmentary collages that channel surf from one topic, image, or idea to the next. In general, those in the first group are entertaining, sharp, disturbing, and excellent. The poems in the second are often forgettable, like so many fashionably disjunctive contemporary poems that shy from the risk of big thinking. Still, in Lerner’s hands even these have plenty of bright, even stunning moments.

Here is a standout from the first group:

child actors are not children, that much we know. Their reputation for viciousness is, by all accounts, deserved. Napoleon and Liszt were child actors. In situation comedies, child actors are black. Some child actors have never been off-camera. If you build a set and start filming, a child actor will come downstairs. Some doctors believe it is the constant surveillance that stunts the growth of the child actor, the pressure of the viewing public’s gaze, while in fact a child actor off-camera is like a fish out of water. He cannot breathe.

Like all the poems in the first group, this one samples various linguistic registers with irony, rather than enhancing the authority of the voice. There is the near scientific tone of the nature documentary, describing another species of creature in clear, comforting terms (“Their reputation for viciousness is…deserved”). We hear the police expert explaining teenage drug-use practices to concerned parents at a PTA meeting; he speaks with suspicion, a certain lack of knowledge, and sympathetic concern ("…that much we know”). A history buff is here too, referencing Napoleon and Liszt. And, of course, a knowing, ironic voice who can see through it all winks at the reader (“Some child actors have never been off-camera”). Taken together, this chorus of voices begins to cut through the tumult. While their composite statement sounds ridiculous, it’s hard not to wonder, after reading this poem, whether, for instance, the Olsen twins or Lindsay Lohan have ever been “off-camera.” What is the cost of “the pressure of the viewing public’s gaze” on them and us? What Lerner does so deftly here, by mirroring the various ways we apprehend our celebrities—as entertaining puppets, amusing pets, and foils on which to hang our misplaced sympathies—is to make us feel the “pressure” that our own voyeurism exerts.

The best of these poems arrive at arresting lines that are comical, anxious and hauntingly true, or at least haunting: “Last year alone, every American choked to death on a red balloon”; “Not having read the author in question is no defense against the charge of plagiarism”; “The calories in a great book equal those burned in its reading.” They illuminate and confound, like aphorisms or koans clipped from glossy magazines.

The fragmentary poems of the second group, however, tend simply to sustain the noise rather than draw attention to or criticize our interaction with it. Here’s an example:

the portion of the story that remains after the other components have been dissolved by churning. The woman attends the night game to watch the snow fall near the lights. Only the body of the protagonist is undergoing change. A whistle sweeps the town of meaning.

Rather than bristling up against one another or defusing one another’s authority, these seemingly random sound bites simply accrue. Lerner’s fragmentary poems don’t make the same concentrated effort as their neighbors do to show us, as readers and watchers and consumers, how complicit we are with our public language’s devaluation. These poems may enact the book’s whole point, but they also drag its momentum.

The three long verse sequences at the beginning, middle, and end of the book work much the same way as the prose pieces, though Lerner uses verse lines to introduce different rhythms and a more personal, less faux-journalistic voice. All three are powerful, but the second and third—“Didactic Elegy” and “Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan”—are astonishing and unforgettable, the crowning achievements of this book. “Didactic Elegy” is a kind of analytical funeral march, mixing the discourses of art criticism, economics, and poetry in a prolonged meditation on September 11 and its aftermath. The poem asks still-pertinent questions (“Should we memorialize the towers or the towers’ collapse?”) and makes quirky, insightful pronouncements (“Refusing to assign meaning to an event is to interpret it lovingly”). “Twenty-One Gun Salute,” in contrast, is an exhilarating parade of mostly unlinked statements—“America is the A-team among nations”; “You never called me before I was famous”—that spins the book into a cynical, slapstick crescendo: “They slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God. / Is this thing on?” These are the techniques and tones Lerner pursues throughout the volume, but here they are raised to the nth degree; the result is an apotheosis of “contaminated language.”

• • •

In her second book, Siste Viator, Sarah Manguso works in the received forms of the fable, the glossary definition, and the parable, all of which are applied far more loosely and subjectively within personal lyrics. These poems also grab slivers of mass-cultural noise—smaller, more esoteric ones than Lerner’s—in order to critique how the self is cobbled together and eroded, a critique directed more inwardly than outwardly. There is a consistent “I” here, a personality the text simulates, rather than an amalgamation of American media. A sense of guilt about the speaker’s vulnerability to mass culture’s mandates—about how to love, think, live, and die—pervades the book, and so, at heart, these are confessional poems in which, again, the poet tries to “out-talk” received language, to hear the murmur of the self underneath.

With her long, prose-like lines and titles such as “Getting over the Twentieth Century” and “There Is No Such Thing as Skill,” Manguso tries to capture the feel of early post-postmodern life. Many of the definitions and pronouncements in these poems are again spoken by an “expert” as in Angle Of Yaw, and they are often exaggerated, far-fetched, erroneous, or purposely irrelevant: “On Jupiter there are sixty-one colors, one for each moon. Painting students make moon-studies in their first color lessons.” They are meant to illustrate how ridiculous it is to assume that language can grasp things that lie distinctly beyond the realm of language, such as “the moment that flying stops being a metaphor.”

Unlike Lerner, Manguso never asks us to see ourselves in her reflection, and in some ways this shrinks Siste Viator’s scope. This is not a public book, neither an essay nor an argument. But because it self-consciously seeks a private audience with the self and the reader, Siste Viator (Latin for “Stop, traveler” and often inscribed on Roman tombs) is able to serve a function that books like Angle Of Yaw cannot: it consoles, and even forgives the reader for trafficking in commercialized language. By mixing critique and guilt—often conveyed as a kind of tragic sarcasm—Manguso strives to reclaim public language not just for poetry but also for the self, as in “The Ten Thousand”:

The ten thousand stand before us.
My back is marked with my blood but I
can’t see it.
In this way a greater perspective is
alluded to.
The ten thousand cannot see the blood
on the back of my neck.
Can you see the back of my neck as you
stand before me?
You close your eyes, say I see it.
I believe you, my reason is weakening.
I believe my eyes,
I believe my wound exists,
I believe we stand full-real and bleeding
before the ten thousand.
We won’t escape the gaze of the ten

Here again is “the pressure of the viewing public’s gaze,” but without the mediating proxy of the child actor. This poem does much of the same work as Lerner’s poem above, but it keeps the action in the realm of the personal, forsaking the protective scrim of cultural criticism.

Many of Manguso’s most successful poems, like many of Lerner’s least successful, are disjunctive and associative. Manguso is able to move convincingly, often within a single poem, from something flippant and trivial (“This morning all non-coffee energy comes from having slept in your blue shirt”) to a weighty, funny, and odd observation (“At this particular moment in the historical cycle, it’s hard to find despair that contributes in a valuable way to a genre that’s seen a lot of derivative despair”). But these fragmentary poems also bear the book’s greatest weakness, namely a sense that not enough is happening to draw disparate lines toward one another, leaving some poems to fall flat, as in these stanzas from “A Flag-Raising”:

Those with identities got the whole cake
of soap
And, after that, the whole cake.
The title shortened itself when I wasn’t
I spend a good part of the day sitting on
a black raft.
Above me floats a burning clock. A blue
I’m good only for waiting and, after that,
only for arriving.

In this poem Manguso attempts a kind of wry, indeterminate wandering that never quite gets going: the lines are limp and vague, and their would-be clever gestures (the revision of “the whole cake of soap” to “the whole cake,” the textual self-consciousness in “The title shortened itself”) are too shopworn to make a distinctive mark. Oddly enough, the suggestion of the sun overhead in “a burning clock,” as conventionally poetic as the metaphor may be, is what really manages to surprise here.

There are a few poems in Siste Viator that disappoint the way “A Flag Raising” does, but not many. For the most part Manguso has written a personally inhabited, voice-driven book that comes to hard-won and dourly humorous terms with the contaminated language of our time.

Lying behind our contemporary exasperation with the public failings and promiscuities of language, it should be noted, is what Sontag refers to as the “perennial discontent with language that has been formulated in each of the major civilizations of the Orient and Occident.” Poets as astute as Lerner and Manguso are certainly aware of language’s inherent faultiness and would no doubt agree with Sontag, but probably not without adding, as the critic herself admits, that technology has saturated our day-to-day existence with more duplicitous rhetoric, erroneous guesswork, neurotic verbiage and outright claptrap than ever before, thereby exacerbating the age-old problem. An artist whose medium has been so debased through misuse would be remiss to pretend otherwise. In their second books, Lerner and Manguso show us how our devaluated language can be seen—or even exposed—for what it is and yet still be made into something of value.