A review of Ben Lerner’s book Mean Free Path, originally published here.
I heard a rumor once that the American poet Ben Lerner, recipient of the Hayden Carruth prize and finalist for the National Book Award, is a hell of a smart guy. While it’s true you shouldn’t believe everything you hear, some things are worth investigation. Lerner’s third collection of poems, ‘Mean Free Path,’ was released in March 2010 to critical praise and the adoration of perhaps dozens of teenagers and 20-somethings around the country. Having seen Lerner read twice in my home town of Seattle, I can assure you that the aforementioned rumor is true.
‘Mean Free Path’ is a book-length poem divided into four sequences, alternately titled ‘Mean Free Path’ itself and ‘Doppler Elegies,’ each employing a rigid stanzaic structure with chaotic undertones. The collection borrows its title from a physics term that refers to the average distance a particle can travel before colliding with another particle. Not surprisingly, then, do we find collisions in the language that makes up this 66-page collection. So many collisions, in fact, that the majority of Lerner’s phrases are fractured and end up scattered throughout, creating a discontinuity between lines. This cut-and-paste technique of beginning a phrase in one place and finishing it in another multiplies the number of possible readings available to the audience who are, if they choose to be, tasked with matching lines together to create persisting cohesion.
There are three hundred sixty-two thousand
And that’s love. There are flecks of hope
Eight hundred eighty ways to read each stanza
Deep in traditional forms like flaws
Visible when held against the light
I did not walk here all the way from prose
To make corrections in red pencil
I came here tonight to open you up
To interference heard as music
Lerner deliberately interrupts, fractures, rearticulates, and recycles his language as a statement that could reference any number of things addressed in the poem—from the nature of beauty, to our internalized propensity for distraction as a society, to media outlets that deliberately interfere with efficient communication via the proliferation of wedge-driving rumors. The poem shifts fluidly from political (“It isn’t a culture of fear. When a people / Pats itself on the back with a numb hand / It isn’t a culture at all”), to personal (“Why am I always // asleep in your poems / Soft static falling through / The life we’ve chosen / from a drop-down menu / of available drives”), and everything in between. It is a sprawling and intricate poetry that enacts the modern-day onlooker suffering from sensory overload, trying to grasp for too many things at once and struggling to latch onto any of it.
Despite the unrelenting fragmentation of syntax in ‘Mean Free Path,’ however, there are certain words that appear again and again as familiar landmarks. Words like ‘Ari,’ (the name of Lerner’s wife), ‘April,’ and ‘night-vision green’ are worked and reworked into the emerging contexts of the poem. The echo-chamber effect created by this method forces us to revisit things from different angles as the poem (and the reader) evolves over time.
She handed me a book. I had read it before
Dismissed it, but now, in the dark, I heard
The little delays. If you would speak of love
Stutter, like rain, like Robert, be
The “little delays,” a reference to the influential American poet Robert Creeley who famously wrote poetry that hesitated, delayed, and stuttered, are revisited a number of times throughout the book, as well as put into practice (“be / Be unashamed”):
I sound like him
more often now, unable to pronounce
or trailing off, then suddenly
Set off against a large expanse
I have to leave. I just remembered
something about Ari
structured like a language
with appropriate delays
Perhaps what is most impressive about this book is that Lerner makes no attempt to merely describe the phenomena of disorientation, rumor, distraction, or other disabling, modern day anxieties. Instead, he makes an ambitious attempt to replicate these things with the very structure of the poem. The result is something that is subjectively disparate yet formally whole—not too unlike the experience of a modern day consumer.
Make no mistake that this is a challenging read that places a larger burden of effort on the audience than most books, but attentive readers will find an experience here unlike any other. I can’t pretend to be intelligent or knowledgeable enough to dissect ‘Mean Free Path’ as meticulously as it was constructed, but I know that I love nearly everything about it and will always have a place for it on my shelf.