Poems as Machines: Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station”

atochastationI watched the poet Richard Blanco’s inaugural reading with an additional layer of skepticism. His poem, One Today, which opens with plain verve (“One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores”) dissolved in the moment. Obama had just roused the crowd with progressive promises, and while his speech was not filled with detailed policy changes, it struck the usual Obamaian{{1}} chords of practicality and purpose—if now with a tonal shift. So what, then, I thought, to make of this poem?

[[1]]Or is it “Obaman”?[[1]]

My skepticism was rooted in the book I had just finished: much of Leaving the Atocha Station is concerned—or rather its protagonist, Adam Gordon, is concerned—with the purpose and practicalities of poetry. At one point, Gordon, a poet in Spain on a fellowship, writes,

I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen, changing the government or the economy or even their language, the body or its sensorium, but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it.

Lerner’s novel, his first—he known for being an award-winning poet—is filled with these sorts of recursive meditations. Gordon, Lerner’s doppelgänger, hates poetry but loves poems, and “tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose.” (He continues: “so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.”) I expect he would find Heidegger’s famous statement on poetry—”[i]n the time of the world’s night, the poet utters the holy” rather laughable, and might riposte that, if that’s true, then the sun must never set.

There is not much plot in Leaving the Atocha Station; the 2004 Madrid train bombings{{2}} figure prominently, and Gordon wanders aimlessly through the city, along with sojourns to Granada and Barcelona. He sleeps with Spanish women, drinks, and smokes pot (usually in reverse order). He squanders most of his time on his fellowship, or at least thinks he does. He lies about his parents back home in Topeka; he feels himself a fraud. In David Foster Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon,” the narrator Neal seems confronted with a similar problem: Neal thinks he is “an essentially fraudulent person who seemed to lack either the character or the firepower to find a way to stop even after I’d realized my fraudulence and the terrible toll it exacted”; Gordon has long thought himself a fraud, recent lies or not, but, like Neal, the epiphany hasn’t changed much in him. He hates being an Ugly American, but he hates even more being an American trying to pass off as a Madrileño.

[[2]]Indeed, it was the Atocha Station that was bombed.[[2]]

Gordon’s inner conflicts make him become something of a stand-in for poetry itself. If the novel suggests anything, it suggests there is “something about why poetry retains its power in the face of so many failed poems” (as Lerner mentioned in a recent Believer interview). Gordon, despite his insecurities, still wows Teresa, an established poet and translator, with his newest work; he is fluent in Spanish without realizing it; and despite his reservations, he is called to sit on a literary panel to discuss the cultural impact of the “3/11” bombings, where he provides some insights labeled “brilliant”—they are actually pretty keen—by the panel organizer. After all, he did win a fellowship to live in Europe and write.

Gordon’s lack of amour propre seems already prefigured by the cover of the Kindle edition (also the same as the hardcover), which features an empty room with a painting canvas, on the floor, facing the wall. Inside the covers, Gordon’s musings and wanderings seem starkly under the influence of W.G. Sebald, whom Lerner has cited as an influence, and Leaving the Atocha Station even includes a few Sebaldian {{3}} black and white pictures interspersed in the text. Teju Cole’s fantastic 2011 novel, Open City, another in the Sebald tradition (who in turn was influenced by Borges, although not by any of the Argentine’s narrative tricks) seems the best recent analogue. If James Wood hasn’t already come up with a term for these sorts of books, which feature so much walking, might I suggest one: Peripatetical Realism.{{4}} They are wandering in many ways, but manage—Sebald and Cole and now Lerner, too—some frightful grip on the reader’s consciousness. The Madrileños Gordon meets are fascinating characters—the inscrutable Teresa especially—and Lerner, writing this short novel, is wise enough to know that we probably couldn’t tolerate Gordon for 500 pages.

[[3]] “Sebaldan”?[[3]]
[[4]]It sounds like something James Wood would come up with, at any rate. CF “hysterical realism,” his term for Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace et. al.[[4]]

But what makes the peripatetic Leaving the Atocha Station so fundamentally powerful and absorbing is that it recognizes how uncomfortable our consciences have grown about ostensibly frivolous things like poetry, but how we still long for much of what poetry actually does. It is significant that Gordon, who is unhappy with himself and taking tranquilizers and imbibing too much, still finds lines of poetry meaningful; and so do we. (Many lines of Auden hadn’t moved me much until I saw a few sprinkled into some Hitchens essay.) Like Gordon, we profess to have forsaken the art form, but are still, in our own way, devoting our lives to it—we are constantly listening to and reciting song lyrics, for example, which is poetry with a melody.

And then of course we still have poets speak before presidential inaugurations. Richard Blanco’s poem read better than it sounded on Inauguration Day, I should add. The political is not the realm for poetry, and Eric Cantor’s doltish frown during the reading only made it worse. (Whether Cantor didn’t like the poem or was caught doltishly frowning at something else, I cannot say. We can all be caught unawares looking doltish by cameras.) Gordon had trouble responding to the Madrid terrorist bombings with anything in poetry. But that doesn’t mean, at least, sitting in our apartments, long after the inauguration, we cannot enjoy Blanco’s verse in our web browser. Or perhaps my quotation was enough.