KFB | REVIEW
HOLCOCENE BEN MEYERSON
KELSAY BOOKS, 2018.
In Holcocene, Ben Meyerson finds an innovative way to step outside of himself, to look through a window at some of the things that define lyric poetry, and define what it is to be human. The ‘you’ and ‘I’ of his book are robots navigating a post-apocalyptic landscape, and an inner landscape of preprogrammed human emotion. They hunger, love, and are drawn to the sea.
The parallel between human and machine is established by mundane connections, like hunger. Ecopoetically, the machines face starvation-as-energy-crisis when in ‘When the fuel dwindles’ they complain of gradually depleting “cavernous oil drums”:
The drying tap is hunger’s sole dimension,
We dig until the desert keens its thick black blood.
Oil, which humans metaphorically hunger after, is cast as actual nourishment. This physical proximity, which reminds the reader of their own mechanical nature, sets the stage for more metaphysical commentary.
Lyric poetry stubbornly holds onto notions of selfhood. Two things that go into constructing a human concept of self are love—the chief interpersonal relationship—and language—the tool with which we represent our Self to ourselves. By giving his robots the notion, I think Meyerson is saying that selfhood is a spurious idea, and undermining the notion that lyric poetry can reify a poet’s self. Consider ‘Song of the Self,’ an anti-Whitmanian ‘Song of Myself,’ in which typical identity markers are recast in mechanical terms:
But read on: life without a self, while bleak, can be beautiful. The movement of the book’s action is toward the water. The speaker shares its departed creators’ fascination with the sea. The robot’s instinct to seek it at first struck me as a death-drive—circuitboards and seawater mix poorly—but then it dawned on me that our human drive seaward is no more practical: indeed, neither can we drink the ocean, nor breathe under its surface, nor swim for long upon it. We are drawn, then, to the water, for its emotional and aesthetic value; we, and Meyerson’s machines, seek it for the same reasons, not for pragmatic but poetic ones.
Meyerson’s writing is conceptually sophisticated and lyrically striking. A thinker and a craftsperson.
His book is available online and in-store at Knife Fork Book. Note also that Ben takes his ecopoetics seriously, walks his talk, is donating his portion of the royalties to the environmental non-profit MN350.
TORBEN ROBERTSON is a poet currently residing in London.