I’m reading Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. The narrator, a young man—ostensibly a poet—on fellowship in Madrid, is recounting a night spent around a bonfire with his Spanish tutor and his tutor’s friends. He doesn’t understand what they’ve been saying because he has less interest in actually learning Spanish than in seeming to already understand the language, and, so, a fight breaks out because he fails to appropriately match his facial expressions to the sad story that one woman has just shared with the group (and that he did not actually follow). A little later, away from the bonfire and away from the man who threw beer in his face, the poet asks the woman what it was she had said:
She paused for a long moment and then began to speak; something about a home, but whether she meant a household or the literal structure, I couldn’t tell; I heard the names of streets and months; a list of things I thought were books or songs; hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change, an analogy involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car. I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.
Lerner’s poet is anxious. In fact, that which makes him a poet is probably the very source of his anxiety, or his anxiety is the source of his poetry, or some combination of these things. See? I’m doing it now myself: understanding in chords, in simultaneous possibilities listed out, all existences all at once—unfurled. Lerner (or Lerner’s poet?) does this constantly. Here, with a second woman’s sad story:
She described the death of her father when she was a little girl, or how the death of her father turns her back into a little girl whenever she thinks of it; he had been young when he died but seemed old to her now, or he had been old when he died but in her memories grew younger.
His excuse for this plurality of meanings is that he doesn’t understand Spanish; the language he’s surrounded by has, for him, lost one of its primary functions—communication grounded in specificity—and become, instead, a series of related possibilities. And with each possibility comes an echo of the last.
This is a poetic language—one of associations and double meanings. Consider, for instance, how Lerner’s poet comes up with what he calls his “translations”:
I opened the Lorca more or less at random, transcribed the English recto onto a page … and began to make changes, replacing a word with whatever word I first associated with it … [o]r I looked up the Spanish word for the English word I wanted to replace (“Under the arc of the sky” became “Under the arc of the cielo,” which became “Under the arc of the cello”).
It’s also, I think, the language of anxiety.
This fear of multiple possibilities existing at once—of not knowing which is the correct one, or which is the one that will be best for you, which is the wrong way to proceed, which is the right—can result in paralysis, in a sort of empty resonance where there are echoes but no originating sounds. This crowding of possibility has its own name, which I’ve just learned from a friend who believes he suffers from it: le bovarysme. Named of course for Madame Bovary, le bovarysme refers to someone who constantly imagines themselves as they are not and where they are not. The grass is always greener, etc. The very scary and real corollary to le bovarysme is not only that there are many ways to proceed, many places to exist elsewhere, but also that there’s one particular way forward or one particular place that’s preferable to all the rest and that, either through error or blindness, you will fail to choose it.
Or maybe—really—the greater terror is not in failing to choose the right path, but in believing there’s a “right” path at all.
What is it about the anxiety of possibility and the possibility of creative work that seems so inherently linked? As we’ve seen, this is where Lerner’s poet (and Leaving the Atocha Station) arrives at lyricism. The poet’s fear of not understanding—but wanting to appear as though he’s understood—results in these beautiful, roving chords of possible meanings. But because the possibilities can’t all simultaneously be true, the only way to capture them (or gesture toward capturing them) is to move toward the hypothetical, the subjunctive—in other words, to turn toward language, to speak them.
So if the proliferation of possibility is the language of anxiety, to give voice to all those possibilities may, ironically, be the only solution to that anxiety.
To make this offensively literal (or offensively symbolic? or obnoxiously cathartic?), I want to tell you about how I just bought a car—a sleek, modern thing reminiscent of Darth Vader’s helmet—that, within a few days of owning, I have realized has the worst blind spots imaginable. I get good gas mileage for the first time in my life, but I can’t see if I’m about to back over someone. It’s possible I already have—I wouldn’t necessarily know.
I’ve lost sleep over this. Not just the car’s actual blind spots (and, of course, all the pedestrians who I convince myself in the middle of the night I have managed to maim), but also all the holes in my knowledge, my egregiously incomplete research—all the things I failed to understand about buying a car. What if I’d actually known what to do on a test drive? What if I’d paid attention to the really important parts of the vehicle and not its adjustable steering wheel, the seats that fold in a number of surprising and pleasing ways? What if I’d asked my friends for specific, concrete help instead of taking their excitement about how loud the Rolling Stones were coming in over the speakers as proof positive? What if—good god—I’d picked the right car?
The worst part of this chord of fears has been deciding what to do with it. To speak the fears out loud is, it feels, to make them irreversible, but to keep them to myself is completely isolating. Alone with a secret—this car I’m supposed to love, but may, in fact, hate—is like being in everyone else’s blind spot. And then thinking constantly that there’s something out there that’s better is like being in my own le bovarysme.
That’s as neat as I have any interest in making this. Anxiety is messy. Desire is messy. Admitting to yourself and to others that you’ve made mistakes—messy. I’m not saying there’s necessarily poetry to this kind of mess, although Lerner’s poet’s “plurality of worlds” definitely derives from a certain untidiness. Possibilities of meaning results in a seeing-through and a seeing-naught.
Someone once told me, make your life messy.
It’s both the best and worst advice I’ve been given.
Image: Atocha Station, Madrid, Fotografías de Ciudad