All criticism is a form of autobiography.
I'VE NEVER MET THE POET Ben Lerner, though we trade email now and then, as we're interested in each other's work. In my case, "interested" is a bit of an understatement. I'm obsessed with him as my doppelgänger of the following generation, my younger self, my aesthetic son. Both of us went to Brown; have traveled in Spain/speak Spanish poorly; are Jewish — i.e., have/had Jewish parents. I wasn't born in Topeka, as he was, but growing up in a northern California suburb felt as far removed from Oz as Kansas. Both of us are writers and "critics." Both of us have/had accomplished mothers and passive fathers. Above all, both of us are in agony over the "incommensurability of language and experience" and our detachment from our own emotions.
I admire Ben's poetry, but I love to death his new book, Leaving the Atocha Station, which is nominally a novel but thick with roman à clefreferences to the author's childhood in Topeka, his undergraduate and graduate years in Providence, his Fulbright year in Madrid, his essay on the Library of America edition of Ashbery's poetry (a collection which includes the poem "Leaving the Atocha Station"), his poet-friends Cyrus Console and Geoffrey G. O'Brien, his psychologist-parents (his mother is the well known feminist writer Harriet Lerner); I'm going to go ahead and treat the novel's narrator, Adam, as he if were Ben. Ben won't mind! — and what difference does it make?
The book — as what significant book is not? — is born of significant despair; Adam/Ben wonders if his poems are "so many suicide notes." If the actual were ever to replace art, he'd swallow a bottle of white pills. If he can't believe in poetry, he'll close up shop. You and me both, pal. The question I want to ask, in this prologue and the book that follows: twenty-three years older than he is, am I in exactly the same stew?
Leaving the Atocha Station "chronicles the endemic disease of our time: the difficulty of feeling," a perfect phrase a reviewer once used to describe an imperfect book of mine. Ben never lies about how hard it is to leave the station — to get past oneself to anything at all. He incessantly wonders what it would be like to look at himself from another's perspective — imagining "I was a passenger who could see me looking up at myself looking down." He wants us to take everything personally until his personality dissolves and he can say yes to everything. Ben has never come anywhere near such an apotheosis. Neither have I: when I was a little kid, I was a very good baseball player, but I actually preferred to go over to the park across from our house, sit atop the hill, and watch Little Leaguers, kids my age or younger, play for hours. "What's the matter with you?" my father would ask me. "You should be out there playing. You shouldn't be watching." I don't know what's the matter with me — why I'm adept only at distance, why I feel so remote from things, why life feels like a rumor — but my father was right: playing has somehow always struck me as a fantastically unfulfilling activity.
What is actual when our experiences are mediated by language, technology, medication, and the arts? Is poetry an essential art form, or merely a screen for the reader's projections? I've li...