Learning to Speak Again

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child, ca. 1300, Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Poet’s prose is mostly about being a poet,” wrote Susan Sontag. It is in this sub-genre, as poet’s prose, that one can place Ben Lerner’s novels, perhaps next to Eileen Myles’ scorching Inferno. Lerner’s new book, The Topeka School is a sort of multi-voiced bildungsroman of Adam Gordon’s years growing up and coming into language as a poet in Topeka, Kansas with his two psychiatrist parents. Adam uses language in many permutations: the nonsensical ‘spread’ of rapid-fire points in high school debates, the appropriated language of freestyle local to his largely white high school, and the careful language of poetry.

“A poem is a mysterious pill,” writes Lerner. A poem is not the red pill, a paradigmatic object of the current culture of resentment and the switch into a far right view of the world. But what does a poem do? More expansively, what can language be and become? Here is one ars poetica offered here,

[Adam] wanted to be a poet because poems were spells, were shaped sound unmaking and remaking sense that inflicted and repelled violence and made you renowned, or renowned for being erased and could have other effects on bodies: put them to sleep or wake them, cause tears or other forms of lubrication, swelling, the raising of small hairs.

Adam is a divided self, as are so many teenagers. His conflict growing up is told simply through his haircut: his “hair is drawn into a ponytail while the sides of his head are shaved, a disastrous tonsorial compromise between the lefty household of his parents and the red state in which he was raised.” Adam’s division goes more deeply than that. What Lerner shows—what is most significant about this book—is how inescapable and cruel the trap of white masculinity and aggression is and the intense effort required to move past this to actual communication.

A major difference of this book from Lerner’s others is the apparent plurality of voices. The story is told from the perspectives of Adam and his parents, a seeming switch from the ‘autofiction’ of Lerner’s earlier books. This does not adequately explain what is happening in the book though. What we have instead, across all three voices, are echoes and repetitions of phrases, questions and images. Through an almost documentary question (what did my parents experience?) and, in one case, the visible machinations of the interview, something crafted comes through: a reiterated question about what the limits of language are. Late in the book, Adam starts to write a poem taking his father’s words and redistributing them across lines. “There was some kind of special power involved in repurposing language, redistributing the voices, changing the principle of patterning faint sparks of alternative meaning in the shadow of the original sense, the narrative,” Lerner writes. Essentially, we learn to write through others.

Here we come back to how poetry is magic. For living in the present, for understanding our collective and individual traumas, the past can be useful. Lerner comes back to his beginnings in the land of Fred Phelps and the Kochs to make language for the difficult moment in which he and we find ourselves, one in which speech has often moved far away from meaning. This is a conceptual book, in the sense that it is “about being a poet” and focuses on what language does. It is also a political and helpful one, helping us to think about how meaning (re)making actually can happen for all of us.

A Note: The Susan Sontag quotation comes from her essay “A Poet’s Prose,” in Where The Stress Falls (2001).

Some Additional Reading: Alongside The Topeka School, I recommend reading I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya for a complementary dissection of the traps of performed masculinity and forced conformity. As well, for a consideration of how to write about whiteness, see this article by Claudia Rankine. Of course, as noted earlier, I would also always recommend Inferno by Eileen Myles.