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Walking Away from History

I felt like a character in The Passenger, a movie I had never seen.

Adam Gordon, a young American poet from Kansas, has received a fellowship to spend a year in Madrid, writing poetry.  Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press, 2011) is his account of that year.  Adam is self-centered, petty, and compulsively dishonest.  He defames his parents, assumes the worst motivations in everyone he meets, and is pretty much disgusted with himself.    He hides behind a wall of deliberately constructed misunderstanding where he abuses alcohol, drugs, and “designer medicines.”  Although the novel is less than 180 pages long, spending that much time with Adam Gordon was painful.

Leaving the Atocha Station drifts murkily and ambiguously through big topics like language and translation, art and its role in society, and the limits of communication.  The central event in the book is the horrendous terrorist bombing at Madrid’s Atocha Station on March 11, 2004.  Adam follows the stunned crowd to the station moments after the blast, but soon walks away, seemingly unmoved.  Goaded into going to donate blood, Adam feigns illness and the nurse kicks him out of line.  “I said to myself that, by that point, they didn’t need blood for the injured anyway.” Like Adam, his poetry also stays away from the political, historical world.  “Poems aren’t about anything,” he insists repeatedly.

If I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgement of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak.  I could lie about my interest in the literary response to war because by making a mockery of the notion that literature could be commensurate with mass murder I was not defaming the victims of the latter, but the dilettantes of the former…

Adam knows he is a fraud and cannot comprehend why no one else sees his the same way.  “Maybe only my fraudulence was fraudulent,” he worries.

Ben Lerner, who has published several books of poetry, has some exceptionally talented writing skills.  Every time I despaired of being condemned to listen to whiny, self-justifying Adam Gordon for one more page, I was compelled to keep going because of Lerner’s subtle prose.  He assembles sentences like a poet, sentences that resonate with his own apparent love of language.  So it’s truly odd that Lerner has chosen to create a book utterly infused with cynicism about language, literature, art, and our personal ability to communicate.

As we walked through the Reina Sofia, I would offer up unconjugated sentences or sentence fragments in response to paintings that she then expanded and concatenated into penetrating observations about line and color, art and institutions, old world and new, or at least I imagined these expansions.  To photograph a painting –, I said with derisive mystery as we watched the tourists in front of Guernica, and then I observed her face as this phrase spread out into a meditation on art in the age of technological reproducibility.  I would say, Blue is an idea about distance, or Literature ends in that particular blue, or Here are several subjunctive blues; I would say , To write with sculpture–, To think the vertical–, To refute a century of shadow–, etc., and watch her mouth the phrase to herself, investing it with all possible resonances, then reapplying it to canvas.  Of course we engaged in our share of incidental talk, but our most intense and ostensibly intimate interactions were the effect of her imbuing my silences, the gaps out of which my Spanish was primarily composed, with tremendous intellectual and aesthetic force.

Leaving the Atocha Station has five Sebald-like photographs of works of art, historical figures, and historical events embedded within the text.  Each image comes with a caption that is a pull-quote from the text.  The twist is that the images and captions appear somewhat randomly scattered throughout the book rather than on the pages to which they directly refer.  The photograph on page 11 has a quote from page 113; the aerial photograph of the bombed city of Guernica and its accompanying quote on page 52 come from a discussion that occurs about ten pages earlier; and so on.  Is this a weak attempt to triangulate between disparate moments within the book or does it represent a kind of editorial arbitrariness?  Is Adam Gordon lazy or is Ben Lerner a brilliant puppetmaster?  For me the puzzle at the core of Leaving the Atocha Station is authorial.  Are we reading Adam’s recollections or Ben’s novel?  Yes, I realize that part of the answer is that we are reading both at once.  But to the extent we are reading Adam’s text, then we are simply locked into the brain and behind the eyeballs of an insufferable, drug-addled narrator.  And in that case my interest wanes pretty quickly, because I couldn’t wait to part ways with him.

Lerner does seem to realize that his choice of narrator forces us into the uncomfortable state of not having anything stable thing to hang on to.  I say this because Lerner occasionally has Adam momentarily rise up out of his stupor to deliver complex, articulate theories.  Whether Adam’s expositions are brilliant or just brilliantly confusing may not be the point.  In this example,  Adam expounds on his favorite poet, John Ashbery.

The “it” in an Ashbery poem seemed ultimately to refer to the mysteries of the poem itself; in the absence of any stable external referent, the poem’s procedures invested its pronouns, and the “you” devolved upon the reader….

The best Ashbery poems, I thought, although not in these words, describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem; his poems refer to how his reference evanesces.  And when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately.  It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading.  But by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence. 

Setting aside the dizzying circularity and mock academic style of Adam’s rather narrow understanding of Ashbery, what seems to be going on here is that Lerner is hinting that he sees Leaving the Atocha Station as a prose version of an Ashbery poem.  He wants to convince the reader that it’s a noble undertaking to be sent off untethered, with no stable external referents, so that we can better attend to our attention and experience our experiences.  Some readers are going to find this a rather meager reward, all sound and fury and of little significance.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I found that I kept shuffling from the text to the author’s photo, especially the scene where his girlfriend comments on his ‘Jack Nicholson eyebrows’ – there were some really great parts, but that moment just cemented how uncomfortable I was with a book about a poet who received a fellowship in Spain by a poet who received a fellowship in Spain. This sense of blurring is so strong that when discussing the book with my partner, I sincerely struggled to distinguish between Adam Gordon and Ben Lerner, at one point referring to ‘Adam Lerner.’ This might be my fault as a reader, and for some, it might even be a positive trait, this autobiographical/fictional guessing game. It’s also never entirely clear why the photographs are there…though it made me think of how his use of images made his book ‘look’ like a novel by Sebald (though, as this blog attests, many other novels before and after Sebald inserted images) attracting readers like me the way some orchids attract bees. That’s not to say I disliked Leaving the Atocha Station, but I was confused in a way that wasn’t enjoyable, not the way Sebald or Marias confuse me, which is delightful.

    December 17, 2011
  2. I ordered a copy of the book after hearing a discussion with Ben Lerner on CBC’s “Writers & Company.” What Lerner had to say during that interview made me want to read his book. When I encountered the photographs, I wondered if I’d find a review / discussion of the book here.

    My experience of the book was different than the one you describe. I couldn’t hardly put the book down and then couldn’t wait to get back to reading if I had to put it down to take care of real life demands. Yes Adam Gordon is an unlikeable guy, but his grotesqueness fed the comedy in the book. The ideas about language and our failure to communicate stimulated me as much as the poetic language.

    October 25, 2012
    • Donovan, Thanks for the comments on Lerner’s book. I’ll readily admit that I am just tone-deaf to certain kinds of books like Leaving the Atocha Station. I read it twice to make sure, but, for me, the irritating points outweighed everything else. I received similar push-back from fans of Gerald Murnane’s The Plains and from readers who liked Enrique Vila-Matas book Montano much more than I did. See: and I even took at stab at analyzing my reactions to books like these (, but my answer still doesn’t seem very satisfying.

      Oddly, now that I think about all three of these books at one time, I realize they all have to do with writer’s writing about their writer’s block. Hmmm… Terry


      October 25, 2012
      • I enjoy Vila-Matas’s books very much. And I found “Montano’s Malady” especially rich and rewarding. Re-reading your review / reaction has sent me back to that book. I’d forgotten the references to Gombrowicz in Mantano. I’m presently reading Gombrowicz’s “Diary” and am in parallel reading “Ferdydurke” and “Cosmos.”

        October 26, 2012

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