The Lichtenberg Figures
Ben Lerner
Copper Canyon Press, $14 (paper)

Like the intricate patterns of ‘captured lightning’ to which the book’s title refers, the poems in Ben Lerner’s The Lichtenberg Figures make their mark in bursts of invention and surprise. The languages of critical theory and television collide, often with titillating and telling results: startling, gnomic ingots are scattered throughout; clichés are ripped apart and reassembled fresh and strange. While each of the poems in the book-length sequence is composed of 14 lines, the governing unit is less the sonnet than the sentence, and Lerner spring-loads one after another in order to deliver his splendidly calibrated punch. For this reason, many of the poems delight in isolation, while over the course of the book one senses an intelligence frenetically changing the subject to keep allegiances at bay, or at least on the surface, where they remain disarmingly fungible—the personal and the allusive alike boiled down to the poetic equivalent of a one-liner. So much of this poetry is smart that it sometimes unhinges itself when it strives for pure cleverness, as when the book’s cataloguing data provides one poem with its last eight lines. And then there are the relentless and tiring grammar gags: “remember the ablative case in which I keep / your tilde”; “Grenades luxuriate / in the garden of decommissioned adjectives”; “The thinkable goes sobbing door-to-door / in search of predicates accessible by foot”; “When I first found the subjunctive, she was broke and butt-naked,” and so on. All that aside, this debut is sharp, ambitious, and impressive, especially considering the poet’s age (Lerner was born in 1979). Given his remarkable skill at crafting sentences with snap, one looks forward to seeing Lerner extend the feat, making the sentence less the subject than the vehicle for a more prolonged and nuanced meditation. “I wish all difficult poems were profound,” one sonnet concludes. “Honk if you wish all difficult poems were profound.” It may mean steering into the punch line, but I’m still offering an encouraging honk.