from Ben Lerner’s Leaving The Atocha Station
I don’t read nearly enough non-YA fiction, and Leaving The Atocha Station underscores the need for me to do it more often. Set in Madrid at the time of the March 11 train bombings, it’s a lovely, quirky little book that draws you in immediately, even as its plot meanders and wanders.
The book contains one of the funniest descriptions of a poetry reading I’ve ever encountered. The setting is a poetry reading in a Madrid art gallery; the narrator is the second poet in the program who has just downed a tranquilizer to calm his own jitters.
“Tomas looked less like he was going to read poetry and more like he was going to sing flamenco or weep; he did not say thank you or good evening or anything but instead paused dramatically as if to gather his strength for what would be by any measure a heroic undertaking. He had shoulder-length hair that kept falling in his eyes as he arranged his papers and he kept smoothing it back with a gesture I found studied; he struck me as a caricature of himself, a caricature of El Poeta. A few more people were trickling into the gallery and he looked at them gravely until they found their seats. Then he looked back down at his paper, looked back up at the crowd, and when the silence had intensified to his liking, he uttered what I assumed was the title of his first poem: “Sea.” To my surprise this poem was totally intelligible to me, an Esperanto of cliches: waves, heart, pain, moon, breasts, beach, emptiness, etc.; the delivery was so cloying the thought crossed my mind that his apparent earnestness might be parody. But then he read his second poem, “Distance”: mountains, sky, heart, pain, stars, breasts, river, emptiness, etc. I looked at Arturo and his face implied he was having a profound experience of art.
Maybe, I wondered or tried to wonder, I’m not understanding; maybe these words have a specific weight and valence I cannot appreciate in Spanish, or maybe he is performing subtle variations on a sexist tradition of which I am not in possession. As Tomas read a third poem, “Work Dream” or “Dream Work,” I forced myself to listen as if the poem were unpredictable and profound, as if that were given somehow, and any failure to be compelled would be exclusively my own. The intensity of my listening did at least return strangeness to each word, force me to confront it as a sound, and then to recapture the miracle of sound opening or almost opening onto sense, and I managed to suspend my disgust. I could not, however, keep this up; it required too much concentration to hear such familiar figurations as intensely strange, even in Spanish. It was not until I began to consider the scene more generally that my interest caught: there were eighty or so people gathered to listen to this utter shit as through it were their daily language passing through the crucible of the human spirit and emerging purified, redeemed; or here were eighty-some people believing the commercial and ideological machinery of their grammar was being deconstructed or at least laid bare, although that didn’t really seem like Tomas’s thing; he was more of a crucible of the human spirit guy. If people were in fact moved, convincing themselves they discovered whatever they projected into the hackneyed poem, or better yet, if people felt the pressure to perform absorption in the face of what they knew was an embarrassing placeholder for an art no longer practicable for whatever reasons, a dead medium whose former power could be felt only as a loss — these scenarios did for me involve a pathos the actual poems did not, a pathos that in fact increased in proportion to their failure, as the more abysmal the experience of the actual the greater the implied heights of the virtual. Then I was able to hear the perfect idiocy of Tomas’s writing as a kind of accomplishment, especially combined with his unwitting parody of himself, doing that thing with his hair, gripping the podium as though the waves of emotion breaking over him might wash him from his feet, and I began to relax a little about my own performance, the tranquilizer no doubt also having its effect.”
from pp. 37-38 of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, Coffee House Press, 2011.