from The Lichtenberg Figures

Ben Lerner

In my day, we knew how to drown plausibly,
to renounce the body’s seven claims to buoyancy. In my day,
our fragrances had agency, our exhausted clocks complained
    so beautifully
that cause began to shed its calories  

like sparks. With great ostentation, I began to bald. With
    great ostentation,
I built a small door in my door for dogs. In my day,
we were reasonable men. Even you women and children
were reasonable men. And there was the promise of pleasure
    in every question
we postponed. Like a blouse, the most elegant crimes were
    left undone.  

Now I am the only one who knows
the story of the baleful forms
our valences assumed in winter light. My people, are you not  

horrified of how these verbs decline—
their great ostentation, their doors of different sizes?


I must drive many miles to deliver this punch line.
I must drive many miles in the modern manner,  

which is suicide, beneath this corrigendum of a sky. Tonight
Orlando Duran went crazy. He smeared every doorknob,
lock, and mirror in his apartment with spermicidal jelly.
To expel air from the lungs suddenly  

is not to live beautifully in the modern manner. Rather
one must learn to drive, to drive
in the widest sense of the word, a sense that seats four
other senses comfortably. Tonight Orlando Duran  

delivered himself in the modern manner,
delivered himself like a punch line. Is this what he meant by  

“negative liberty,”
by “sound of one hand clapping is a heartbeat”?  


True, a great work takes up the question of its origins
and lets it drop. But this is no great work. This is a sketch
sold on the strength of its signature, a sketch
executed without trial. Inappropriately formal,  

this late work reflects an inability to swallow. Once
my name suggested female bathers
rendered in bright impasto.
Now it is dismissed as “unpronounceable.”  

Polemical, depressed, these contagious black planes
were hung to disperse museum crowds. Alas,
a generation of pilgrim smokers
has arrived and set off the sprinklers.  

True, abandoning the figure won’t change the world.
But then again, neither will changing the world.  


The left hand is a scandal. And my woman is left handed.
She neglects our middle children.
She deploys her powers on behalf of other nations.
Sleep is a synagogue. And my woman sleeps
The dreamless sleep of the pornographer. Mother always said,
“Worship me, and all this will be yours.” Father always said,
“Suffer common hardship and die in bed.”
Yet I reside with my woman on their acre of irony.
Yet I will die on the cross and I worship my death.  

The internet is the future. And my woman rejects the
She rises up when I lie down.
She inflames divisions among the Jews.
Citation is exaltation. And my woman cites
her own unpublished dissertation.  


I did it for the children. I did it for the money.
I did it for the depression of spirit and the cessation of hope.
I did it because I could, because it was there.
I’d do it again. Oops, I did it again.  

What have I done? What have I done
to deserve this? What have I done with my keys,
my youth? What am I going to do
while you’re at tennis camp? What are we going to do  

with the body? I don’t do smack. I don’t do
toilets. I don’t do well at school. I could do
with a bath. Unto others, I do
injurious, praiseworthy, parroted acts.  

Let’s just do Chinese. Just do as I say. Just do me.
That does it. Easy does it. That’ll do.  


Blood on the time that we have on our hands.
Blood on our sheets, our sheets of music.
Blood on the canvases
of boxing rings, the canvases of Henri Matisse.  

The man-child faints at the sight of blood
and so must close his eyes
as he dispatches his terrier
with a pocketknife. Tonight,  

blood condensed from atmospheric vapor
falls to the earth. It bleeds three inches.
Concerts are canceled, ball games delayed.
In galoshes and slickers, the children play.  

An arc of seven spectral colors appears opposite the sun
as a result of light refracted through the drops of blood.  


In those days partial nudity was permitted
provided the breasts in question hung from indigenes.  

The clouds had an ease of diction,
and death had a way with women
and at night our documents opened
to emit their redolent confessions.  

In those days whole onions, whole peoples were immersed
in the pellucid, semisolid fat of hogs.  
The children ran lines of powdered gold,

huffed glue comprised of studs,
smoked burial myrrh and then shot up

their schools.  
In those days police hauled in all bugs, then birds, then stars
and the sky fled underground.

Love what you've read? Subscribe to The Paris Review.