The Snows of Venice by Ben Lerner

Slow sonnets for Alexander Kluge

BOMB 140 Summer 2017
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This is best understood as a work of theater

This is where a cruise ship ran ashore
In 2020, a dark bloom spread through the embayment
And this is color separating into dots and patches
Fillings for the teeth, valves for the hearts
This is snow falling on Venice (in a novel)
A medium less dense than regular air
And this is feast day at the hospice
A single word in German, without vowels
Long before it should have been thinkable
A common cornice appears over the abacus
While outside the dark, aforementioned bloom 
Is taken as an omen by the builders, and this
A hammer-shaped capital affixed to a thickening wall


I have covered the blank spaces with flamboyant leafage, the most piquant of pictorial effects
(now lost)

I have papered over the windows for tonight’s presentation on the colonization of the life-
world, please make sure your phones are off

I would like us to begin with a few minutes of silence in which we register the slow pulse of
evolutionary cycles, admitting at the outset that this is impossible, given the rush of blood

And here I might mention the confusion of the individual heartbeat for larger historical
rhythms gave rise to the novel as a form

For any adequate theory of labor must account for the counter-labor of paradoxical sleep

Just as popular song arises out of the relation between individual tears and rain

I believe this is what he means by the Denkbild of the female welder sweeping her arms back
in the “winglike fashion” of a bird

Or the static of the nervous system, like a stray military transmission confused for the sound of
alien life

I meant paradoxical speech, the way a bird is thrown prematurely into the sky

Or the Denkbild of the Doge’s Palace, its system of mobile gates, the cruise ship as floating
castle ruin, Baroque spheres and almonds beginning to drip (slow pulse of it)

Now I’d like to play a clip of a bird mimicking camera shutters and approaching chainsaws,
singing the song of its imminent destruction, not to be confused with consciousness, which

Which in fact arises out of that lag or lagoon or Laocoön, all words for the same thing: an
abeyance, a dark bloom

If you didn’t think political experience was grounded in the sensation of touch, particularly of
bruised fruit, you wouldn’t be here tonight (and you’re not)

Snow falls between stimulus and response



An organ piece lasting six centuries
Begins in the reconstructed city

Muted by a cube of glass
The chords will change in 2020

To warn the citizens of Halberstadt
Bombers are approaching

On April 8th, 1945



Mistranslated as “tonal war”
The sense of the sentence is unchanged

Unchained melodies are sweet
They have a tendency to form

Glasses and other amorphous sonnets
(My Italian is rusty; my German: rust)

The windows shatter first
The windows pour into the streets

Tearing at their protein chains
Because there is no word for thought

(They have a tendency to form)
In Western music, a cube of gas

Because there are no phonographs
Identity of the missing cannot be



As a child I thought of night and day as an opposition whereas now I grasp it as gradation
The outer, often edible layer of shadow
Like every child, I lived in a cathedral town of no strategic importance

At dusk you could hear the pollen moving from the stamens to the stigma, slowest music in
     the forest
You could hear the shadows develop into seeds
As a child I thought of dusk as a civilian site where people congregate for music whereas now

I grasp the metal arm rests as we descend, moonlight on the wing
This is the softest music in the world, bright green blooms in freshwater systems, red tides off 
     the coast
The birds are mimicking the surrounding silence

The birds are cracking open the shadows with highly specialized beaks
Like every child, I wandered over an orbed field in endless fantasy whereas now I practice law
But the law is silent on this point or soft

I see the trees as ranks of pipes whose corresponding keys are underground
Through the specialized lens of the graded dusk



Music strikes an area, not a point
It goes up one leg and stops the heart

This is what happened in central Europe
(The hooves of sleepers on the grass

Create potential pathways for the melody)
Then travels down the other in an instant

Bodies smoke among blue flowers
The timbre structures split or scar

Producing the illusion of agency
(Schoenberg himself detested the term)

“Never wake a collective subject”
Voltage fluctuates across the scalp

Like a tornado touching down
The dream selects its sleeper



Every night after the performance
The city must be taken down
Before a captive audience of stars
Nonprofessional actors fall

A snow effect has been achieved
In the eyelashes of soldiers
Who’ve learned German for their roles
All of them nonspeaking

Wild beasts are spellbound
By recorded music
By means of adjustable counterweights
Scenery is flown

And over the space blocked out for Parsifal
A hovering white drone


     It is good to be young in the premature autumn inflicted on the hills by flash radiation. Through dark leaves (in a novel) the golden oranges glow
     Different levels of unreality creep into the image
     If epic theater has taught us anything, it’s that to reconstruct an explosion in slow motion you have to build the entire room out of paper, then cut it into bits
     Look closely at the myrtle and bay trees. Any second they will blossom into kitsch

     I was reading a prose translation of Goethe’s Venetian Epigrams when a series of strange postural automatisms caused a small crowd to form around me
     It was then that I realized I have no idea what is commonly meant by “experience”

     Press your arms against the doorframe for thirty seconds then step away and they will rise into the air as if under some external force. Now imagine that happening to eight million people at once
     I saw the sea gleam

     Over me a rain of flowers
     It is good to be young, practicing precision grips on a blanket in tall grass, as traditional orders of meaning glow orange
     In response to nightfall, the nastic movement of dark leaves. The faint suggestion of consciousness, like the odor after a storm
     I pressed my tongue against the doorframe, stepped away. Paradoxical speech rose into white space

     I think I could have an experience, a series of rhythmic contractions, if the conditions moved outward in slow waves

     Like the order after a storm, I meant to say, plants germinating in distress, small bubbles on the pores, then aerosol release


Say I am a paper figure held between a light source and a screen; nevertheless, I experience pain. Special qualia escape through a hole in the cage, moonlight on their wings

This is known as the masked man fallacy

When I was in Venice I thought up some criteria for rain. It must darken stone, for example. It must be abstract. It must give pleasure. But how can I know when another is in it? He or she could be feigning

Say a man (masked) walks up to you in a private language. He is anchored to the ground by webs of tough tissue. He is pointing to a process in his larynx (poetry)

If rain can be perceived in the wrong part of the body, away from the stimulus, then it can also be experienced at the wrong time, darkening the manuscript at your desk

This makes it difficult to photograph

Nevertheless, a man retreats to a mountain villa to revise his influential theory of experience so that it better accommodates the possibility of illusion. There he turns to stone or drink

This is where the volta was

There the suspicion that he is a convincingly designed automaton intensifies at sunset. He listens to rain fall or feign across the vast spruce monoculture

It must involve the destruction of civilian property. It must resist the intelligence agency almost successfully. It must be difficult to photograph. It must entail a private morphology of needle and cone. These are some criteria for stage design

What we cannot speak about must be passed over by aircraft in staggered formation. Or, in the Ogden translation: Whereof one cannot speak, therefore one must be passed over (by aircraft)

The problem with rain is that it lends concreteness to the unspoken, although this is not a problem in German, given the placement of the verb

This is a hole in the page

If you hold a German verb between a light source and a screen, you get the future perfect (“It will have rained”; “The rain will have turned to stone”)


Objects have been paired and centered
Objects have been given depth and shadow

Take the violinist on the sinking liner
The tone is painfully rich and mellow

We can overlook the arbitrary treatment
Of his dulled, recessive eyes

Taken from life, torn from it
Exceptionally fine is the composition

Of sound decaying in the moonlight
Decaying in the sea, slowest music

In his white sleeve, toned with blue and gray
Above all else, its modernity lies

The gulls mere suggestions
Of the pure abstraction of their cries


We have hung tulle over the lens to muffle the contours of the image. We have a twofold relation to our materials. On the one hand, crawling ants. The other hand we place in a box

The undersigned consider themselves objects first, Germans second

We will emancipate the eye from the endless microlabor of registering light and depth (Snows of Venice)

The sightlines of statues remain after you pull them down, that’s what this film is about. When you walk through the city you can feel them brush against your face, which is what the face is for

“About,” “for”—remnants of the old order, a captain’s cufflinks catching moonlight as the cruise ship runs ashore. And yet these are our materials, folding in on themselves. A kind of undersong

(A sextet redistributed among the octet so the volta is immanent but never arrives)

When art widens the angle, capital widens the boulevards. When historical knowledge is translated into sense perception, an angel gets its elytra, which often fuse together, rendering it flightless, flammable

We define an actor as someone who pretends the fire is part of the performance so as to prevent the audience from panicking. That is also how we define a politician or parent or violinist

To shout fire in a crowded movie theater when there is no fire (poetry); To shout fire in a theater when there is no crowd (philosophy); To shout fire in a theater seventy-five years too late (politics)

We demand nonprofessional actors subject to rapid oxidization. The fire can burn inside and outside of the performance simultaneously without the flames portraying anything

These are rushes from Eisenstein’s adaptation of Capital redistributed among dark leaves

This is a manifesto written in hexameters proclaiming the death of old cinema (by fire). The hexameter is a kind of lens

We eschew digital technologies for celluloid. This is both because celluloid was once used to dress the wounds of soldiers and because it so easily catches and folds in

Smoke rising from the signatories


It was second nature to me, then third
Then a minor third, saddest interval

I was born with behavior learned
From future stimuli, small antiquities

Wisdom teeth, the relic of the tail
Vestigial feelings as night fell

To spear a word in a stream of sound
I developed eyespots on my wings

Dying each time I tried to mate
With candle flame or electric light

I removed it from my mouth for sleep
I watched it flower in the glass

Then fell back into the water like
Then emerged out of the soil as


Last autumn, looking through old family photographs, I discovered a fourth form of aphasia. Silver image deterioration, particularly in the trees, visual equivalent of unheard melodies

If you were part of a Soviet study of brain impairment, you wouldn’t know it, playing an augmented reality game on your smart phone, trying to locate virtual creatures in real space

The eye movements of an agnosic reading music—identical to the movements of paradoxical sleep—have been set to music by a German I know

I know a German who believes that death is a unique phase of mammalian sleep, the brainwaves taking six centuries to form

You are all familiar with the story of the railroad foreman who survived the passage of an iron rod through his left frontal lobe, but how many of you are familiar with the poem

This is genre blindness, a painful condition akin to sunburn of the cornea, when sunlight is reflected off of the page

To become unlettered without recourse to trauma or disease, an ancient dream. The sonnet that ends in snow

So why all this focus on restoring speech or sensation to the hands? The enlargement of Eisenstein’s right hemisphere is visible in the autopsy photograph I keep here on my desk

Slowest sonnet in the world, neurons communicating across epochs, basic cortical rhythms mistaken for seasons, particularly in the trees

Instead I believe we should start making small disks of glass, convex on both sides, and position them on the face. That is why I’ve come to Venice

I have come to Venice to present my findings regarding the reflex reactions of servility and terror, to isolate them in the hands, producing vibrato

The first imperative is to place the organ (grinder) and lens (grinder) in dialectical relation, strategies of augmentation

Then to recognize the constant rain of tiny iron rods that passes through us

Breaking the letters of self as we read



We’ve filled a small chamber with oxygen and helium
A medium less dense than regular air
Requiring more force to stay aloft, in order to observe

Compensation mechanisms, how it bears
The child falling from a window, stack of burning books
The findings will have implications for the next

The last generation of predator drones
The pale blue powder scrapes off during mating
The rest of the color is produced by scattering

Ashes of light across the stones of Venice
A single word in German, without vowels
Without capitals, the silences pronounced

By obstructing airflow over centuries
Snow falls through the vocal folds

Ben Lerner’s most recent books are The Hatred of Poetry (FSG Originals, 2016) and Blossom (MACK, 2015), a collaboration with Thomas Demand. These poems were originally composed for the exhibition The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied, on view from May 13 to November 26, 2017, at the Fondazione Prada in Venice, Italy.

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Originally published in

BOMB 140, Summer 2017

Featuring interviews with John Giorno, Lidia Yuknavitch, Iman Issa, Eric Baudelaire, Ieva Misevičiūtė, Daniel Borzutzky, and more.

Read the issue
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