Mean Free Path

by Ben Lerner
Copper Canyon Press 2010
Reviewed by Ken L. Walker


“All these words look the same to me”

The “mean free path” Wikipedia page is a boringly fascinating, prosaically interesting piece of internet writing on something that is almost unintelligible because of its many percentages, graphs and physical formulas. One might need a translator. Then, there are appealing statements like this:  “A classic application of a mean free path is to estimate the size of atoms or molecules.” Oh, right. We have to estimate the size of those things we cannot see. Science remains abstract. Basically, the distance a thing travels prior to colliding with another thing is its “mean free path,” or is its love or is its significance, or is its coincidence.

This also happens to be the title of Ben Lerner’s third book of poetry, Mean Free Path, a work that closely examines the need to complete a statement, which is to say, repair a statement until it is never complete. Like his previous book Angle of Yaw, the book is divided into five sections. It begins with a poem/dedication uncannily entitled “Dedication,” which is followed by alternating “Mean Free Path” and “Doppler Elegies” sections. Nothing here is distinct, and nothing is isolated.

This is just more of Lerner’s strong suit. He is a chameleon on a tree branch, converting one subject into another and making form seem simple while it is internally complex. As Charles Olson writes: “Everything issues from, & nothing is anything but itself / measured so,” — this is much of Mean Free Path‘s device, that measuring and counter-measuring make up a better measurment than the single factual ruling one gets from a hash-mark and piece of tape.  The poems here help one to recognize that even the simplicity of random movement, beyond estimation, is fascinating to continually re-read. The book’s opening poem, “Dedication” employs this well:

For the distances collapsed.
                For the figure
failed to humanize
the scale. For the work,
the work did nothing but invite us
to relate it to
                the wall.
For I was a shopper in a dark

And here are the last ten:

For I had overslept,
                for I had dressed
in layers for the long
dream ahead, the recurring
dream of waking with
alternate endings
                she’d walk me through.
For Ariana.

                For Ari.

At this point, the book becomes simultaneously encompassed and directed, something with some love (poems) in it.  Then, there’s the preposition “for.” Forget that books dedicated in a traditional manner have now been shattered. This lyric of “for” bisects the notion that a thing can be given and it can also be presented—the entire history of single poems. The first fifty-seven lines of “Dedication” are for :  the distances, the figure, the work, I, the mode, the city, I, the rain, the architecture, I, my blood, my authority, I, I, I, I, and I; the last three lines are for : Ariana and Ari—the same person, dedicated to and from, made into song.

This then transitions into the first line (possible material for montage) of the first section—“Mean Free Path”—whose first line is:  “I finished the reading and looked up”.  This first part of the “Mean Free Path” sequence contains thirty six nine-line stanzas, two per page, paired. The first stanza, however, is ten lines. A tiny ode to Creeley arrives in the fifth stanza, beginning with the third line:

I like the old music, the audible kind
We made love to in the crawl space
Without our knowledge. Robert is dead
Take my voice. I don’t need it. Take my face

A noticeable creature jumps out here. Line three continues over into lines four and five, making a grammatically-correct, captivating sentence. However, lines five and six do not work out of that methodology. The lyric is hair-lined at times and shattered at others. The reader is fully engaged, given a virtual steering wheel in the very least, which culminates in the eighth stanza’s final two lines:

How the beauty of your singing reinscribes
The hope whose death it announces. Wave

And, in the fourteenth stanza’s final two lines:

All these words look the same to me
Fascism. Arrange the flowers by their price

Capitalism turns tethered words into recognizable materials, as it long has done to natural resources. Fields of words turn into factories of phrases and those factories of phrases turn into silicon valleys of broken, incomplete and newly attempted and overly used verdicts. Mass confusion, created and exercised, all the poets worn out and in love with vampires. If we wake up the conceptions of Nixon telling the populace to “sacrifice” and Bush demanding shoppers to “go out and buy,” we can see that, not only has meaning been stripped from words, but that the very actions those words represent have also become uselessly commonplace and unclothed of originality.

A computer’s hard drive can die just like someone’s grandfather. Things that begin one way return with a difference building off of its original content. No industrial without agricultural; no artificial without industrial. This is the amazing feat Lerner’s book begins to conduct—a well orchestrated conversation with contemporary society on the positioning of history, of language within that history, and of poetry within that history, something he calls the “despairing of the art.” Yet, this book is also bestowed upon his love.  Actually, nothing looks the same, fascism and capitalism honestly discussed. Arrange the flowers by their essential qualities.

Some of the most remarkable books of innovative poetry intuit and exude the ability to train a reader how to read them, but also how to generally read (anything) anew. By the time one gets to the first “Doppler Elegies” portion of the book, the normal reading eye and ear have been fucked with so much that the inherent attention one must pay to the overarching reach of the poem has been delicately heightened. Here, in the fourth segment (of eight), the captivating second of three nine-lined stanzas:

get it. I looked out
                 over Denver, but could see
only our reflection. Dim
the cabin lights. Robert is dead
Articles may have shifted
I didn’t know him. Why am I
                clapping. We are beginning
our final descent into
                A voice described as torn

Put together lines twelve, seventeen and nineteen and this opportune re-phrasing becomes possible: “over Denver, but could see/clapping. We are beginning/A voice described as torn.” Those phrases could or have return discordantly, a shuffled deck of cards, a lingual photo-album, an act of possible montage where the reader can attempt a normalized linear read or stack phrasings differently and interpret what is positioned as apology or loss — completion via re-arrangement, the illusion of fresh start.

Also, don’t overlook the re-positioning of the phrase “Robert is dead”. The Husserl-esque question “Why am I” provides a clever line break, especially when followed by “clapping” (not completed with a question mark).  The book almost needs an index of phrases so its reader can find a phrase like Robert is dead and begin to scale its various placement for his or her self. It is not choose-your-own-adventure because it is a loosely taut work, more so than the average loosely-based and highly more arbitrary works of collage, i.e. refrigerator magnets, some pieces of the Fluxus movement and Massurealism. The best poetry should be calculated; though, the best accidents crash in art; though, a crash usually occurs because of uncontrollable elements.

Lerner exercises the line break as a display of contemporary culture’s ability to focus, reflecting Nicholas Carr’s thesis of “continuous partial attention” and the onslaught of the consumer having the access to and being much quicker than mass media.  Yet, and still, mass media continues to swallow the individual consumer in its myriad of methodologies. This is one more element of superb control the book quietly donates its reader. Debord dances in his grave as Lerner exemplifies:  “We could watch /our own plane crash” ; and, even more so here:

                remnants of small fires
the eye can pull new features from
                The stars

eat here. There is a private room
                Are you concerned
about foreign energy
In your work, I sense a certain
distance, like a radio left on
Across the water, you can see
                 the new construction going up

Each one of us is too far from the source, not close enough to see its structure but we can sense it, can acknowledge its present and signify all damn day.

I have heard people criticize Lerner’s work as being too clean, too calculated and perfected, not quite loose enough, or able to break its own rules. Mean Free Path is the counterpunch to those arguments. Where there is a rule broken, there is a gorgeous phrasing. Where there is an error, it is due to a more important, overarching squabble with the poem’s formality. Where a dedication of love occurs, so does a quiet ode to those who suffer from stuttering. Lerner is brilliant at so many simultaneous occurrences that this book is going to require frequent book reviews, one for every in-depth reading.