Did you ever read a book that left you with the feeling that there was more there below the surface then you could grasp? Ben Lerner's new book, The Hatred of Poetry, did that to me today. Especially the last six or seven pages of what might be termed an essay or maybe not. Twice while reading it this AM the eerie occurred. He imagines as a child uttering the words vanish or varnish while pointing at an object such as a back hoe or tree or a neighbor. He says, "If you are five and you point to a sycamore or an idle backhoe or a neighbor stooped over his garden or to images of these things on a television set and utter "varnish " or utter "vanish" you will never be only incorrect; if your parent or guardian is curious, she can find a meaning that makes you almost eerily prescient-the neighbor is dying, losing weight, or the backhoe has helped a structure disappear or is glazed with rainwater or the sheen of spectacle lends to whatever appears onscreen a strange finish.To derive your understanding of a word by watching others adjust to your use of it: Do you remember the feeling that sense was provisional and that two people could build around an utterance a world in which any usage signified? I think that's poetry...."
About four years ago I wrote a poem titled Melancholia and the Age of Varnish. I used those two words varnish and vanish . In my poem they carried for me that same feeling he describes.
I put this book down to watch a young dragonfly hover over a car parked along the street in front of the sidewalk where I sat drinking coffee downtown. He would zip away and suddenly return to a holding pattern over the car roof. I realized it was gazing at its reflection. At that moment another one entered, zig- zagging around the first. Then they tore off together, one tailing the other like Top Gun. They skirted from one end of the street to the other. I thought of where their home might be. Then the reflection and the arrival of another made me think of relationship. When I returned to the book I hadn't read very far before I came to this: "(A few summers ago I attended an aggressively mediocre opera at a gorgeous outdoor theater in Santa Fe, and when my boredom had deepened into something like a trance, I happened to see from our distant seats a single firefly slowly flashing around the orchestra, then floating onto the stage, then drifting back beyond the proscenium: its light appearing here in New Mexico and then three leagues from Seville, here in clock time and there in the continuous present tense of art...)"