“Somewhere in this Book I Broke” — a review of Mean Free Path by Ben Lerner

Jeff T. Johnson


Mean Free Path
by Ben Lerner
Copper Canyon Press
96 p.

“I want this to be / Composed entirely of edges, a little path / for Ari.” This sentence appears midway through Mean Free Path, Ben Lerner’s third book of poems on Copper Canyon Press. It is a moment of clarity, candor, and self-consciousness that gives clues to the way the book works. Of course, by that point, the reader is well acquainted with, if not entirely oriented to, Lerner’s project. Let’s zoom out and have a look at what surrounds the sentence. Do not adjust your monitor:

                   Wait, I don’t want this to turn
                   Turn into a major novel. I want this to be
                   Composed entirely of edges, a little path
                   For Ari. All my teachers have been women
                   But not how you mean that. That’s why I speak
                   In a voice so soft it sounds like writing
                   Night writing. A structure of feeling
                   Broken by hand. I want the paper to have poor
                   Opacity, the verso just visible beneath

So goes one of 36 pieces in the fourth movement of Mean Free Path. Many of Lerner’s themes and preoccupations are present in this passage. Such is the case on every page, as Lerner seeks to deliver an experience of simultaneity, interruption and disjunction throughout the volume.i  As in his previous collection, the 2006 National Book Award finalist Angle of Yaw, Lerner slips in and out of multiple voices in pursuit of poetic forms and registers that can communicate through the static of contemporary accelerated culture.ii We are accustomed to a multi-tasking, hypermediated environment, where rounds of gunfire and applause are indistinguishable, and Lerner appears to make poetry that embraces our capricious attention spans. However, the increasingly rigorous nature of his forms is at odds with the notion that we can read a Lerner poem while checking email, G-chatting with grandparents, creating a PowerPoint presentation and intermittently hollering at the dog to Get off the damn couch.
            First of all, Mean Free Path is not made up of discrete poems with individual titles. It’s a book-length project composed of five sections, including a two-page “Dedication” followed by alternating movements, two each of “Mean Free Path” and “Doppler Elegies.” The two types of movements have unique, consistent structures. Each “Mean Free Path” is broken into 18 verse pairs of nine lines, and the first half of the first pair is 10 lines. The passage quoted above is the first half of one of these pairs. The “Doppler Elegies” movements each contain eight pieces of 27 lines (three nine-line stanzas). The overall structure refines and concentrates the formal concerns evident in the alternating verse/prose schemes of Angle of Yaw, as well as the disintegrating forms of his loose sonnet sequence, The Lichtenberg Figures (2004).
            Lerner’s primary line-to-line strategies are disjunction and repetition (with a difference). We get the impression that he started with a few cohesive poems, then copied, cut and pasted them into the forms of Mean Free Path, reappropriating his own material and possibly incorporating material from other sources. What we have, then, is a remix without an original. However, he could just as well have composed the book from front to back, recombining and exploring his motifs in real time, as he wrote. Ultimately, the difference between these two methods is not as great as it might seem, and this is part of what the book has to say.

            We have internalized the discontinuities of everyday experience. We can defrag our laptops, but we can’t defrag our minds, though we have a hard time distinguishing between thought and computer processes. Lerner has also internalized, in his poetry, the discontinuities and ambient noise of daily experience in post-millennial America. It doesn’t matter whether he collaged his own poetry, and it’s not necessary to figure out if he incorporated outside sources. He could have written a dense paragraph outlining the book’s concerns, printed out 10 copies, and cut and pasted them by hand into these poems. Or, as would be appropriate to the editorial and marketing voices that creep into his poetry, he could have worked from a promotional description of the book. Also, poetry by nature incorporates outside sources, be they literature, public announcements, recalled conversations, or pieces of pop ephemera. Mean Free Path suggests there is no distinction between more or less manual compositional procedures and the way we process information, except that most of the work we do by hand is data processing via keyboard. If we have reached a point where the Kindle seems like a reasonable replacement for a book, and we prefer searchable docs to paper documents, we have reached a point where “cut and paste” evokes a computer command instead of a pair of scissors and a bottle of glue. And as we look to our computers as all-in-one tools, our windows to the world are replaced by screens. In that console-mediated world, command and control are buttons to be pushed, not notions to be questioned. Even our options are reduced to key commands.
            So, Mean Free Path has a lot more to talk about than its own creation, or, more to the point, its structure is integral to its messages. And Lerner is not advancing a Luddite agenda, he is looking for a path to engagement with the literal world. At 31 years old, the former Fulbright Scholar is a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh writing department, an experienced editor of literary journals (he was a co-founder of No: a journal of the arts, and he is the recently appointed poetry editor of Critical Quarterly), and a lauded figure in American poetry. To put it mildly, Lerner is driven. His aim, with this book, is not only to create poetry relevant to contemporary culture, but to write a viable love poem based on fractured lyric. While he’s at it, he weaves in an elegy for the loss of a friend, meditates on the Doppler effect as a metaphor for cross-fading spans of attention within a perpetually distracted virtual and actual landscape, comments on the everyday invasions of privacy, public discourse and civil rights on the part of the American military-industrial complex and the Department of Defense, and apologizes to his wife for being so distracted all the time.iii
            Take this passage, which concludes one of the “Doppler Elegies”:

                                I’m on the other line
                   in a cluster of eight poems
                                all winter. The tenses disagreed

                   for Ari. Sorry if I’ve seemed
                                distant, it’s been a difficult
                   period, striking as many keys
                   with the flat of the hand
                   as possible, then leaning the head
                   against the window, unable to recall
                                April, like overheard speech
                   at the time of writing
                                soaked into its length

What was a phone line becomes a metastructural reference, and the “line” also calls out to a noose. Lerner rhymes his wife’s name with “sorry,” apologizing for a “difficult period” that immediately becomes an ornery punctuation mark, though “period” is followed by a comma, which then leads to a fit of keyboard pounding and a collapse onto a computer screen. It’s also a scene on a plane flight, in which he’s frantically writing a letter on a laptop and leans his head against the window while he short circuits on memory and input. Meanwhile, the form he’s contrived, in which particular lines are always indented 13 spaces, dramatizes and aestheticizes the Doppler effect (lines slide left and right, reference and register different sources, phase from spoken to written language, fade out).

            However, to read the book through a strictly biographical lens is to shut off several of its channels. “Dedication” is a coda for Mean Free Path, describing a state of the union as well as a state of mind. It’s written in the first person, but it is a diffuse “I” that says:

                        For I felt nothing,
                                     which was cool,
                        totally cool with me.
                        For my blood was cola.
                        For my authority was small
                        involuntary muscles
                                     in my face.
                        For I had some work done
                                     on my face.

But, after all, Lerner is trying to write a love poem, which means that among all the distractions, he does have to ground his I. The poem suggests such a shift is possible, which Lerner illustrates in the way his “for” transitions from the head of a mannered litany of personal and cultural excuses to the dedication “For Ariana,” which immediately becomes less formal in reiteration: “For Ari.” Throughout the book, Ari will be a stabilizing force among disjunctive narrative strains—when her name appears, the mean-free path through language becomes more apparent. Naturally, “mean” is given a full workout in the book, from concerns with coherence to missile trajectories to tones of civility and affection. And, of course, the title “Dedication” takes on additional resonance in terms of his project: The poem, and Ben, are dedicated to Ari, and Ben is dedicated to writing a love poem that is engaged with the world. For the poem is also offered to his readers.
            Lerner is defensive about his love poem, just as he describes, in fits and starts, a defensive nation, where we are unified by interminable lines at the airport. He repeatedly warns away those who are discomfited by “the irrelevant I” and solipsism of romantic lyricism, sometimes in hostile tones:

                   There is no such thing as non sequitur
                   When you’re in love. Let those who object
                   To the pathos swallow their tongues. My numb
                   Rebarbative people, put down your Glocks
                   And your Big Gulps. …

Critics beware, haters begone, trigger-happy consumer culture back off, this is love!    
            In hand with the cut-up structure, just about every line supports multiple readings, and words are used for all they’re worth. Lerner uses the term “virga,” taking advantage of its secondary definition the phenomenon of precipitation from the undersurface of clouds that evaporates before reaching the ground. But the primary definition refers to a symbol used in plainsong notation to designate a long, two-beat note. Plainsong is a principal melody accompanied by a running melody or counterpoint, which is an apt description of Mean Free Path’s structure. Lerner makes several references to music (e.g., “What if I made you hear this as music”), signifying classical notions of poetry as song, as well as Dopplered stereo sound in public spaces. His complex structure and referentiality is symphonic, which deepens the music of the volume. When the poem evokes the death of a friend by hanging, Lerner uses the term “ligature,” which is variously defined as a tie, a bond, a method of notation indicating the binding of musical notes, and the connections of letters in typesetting, all of which reverberate through the book.

            The themes of Mean Free Path are also tied to the scientific concept “mean free path,” which refers to the average distance traveled between two events. In acoustics, it describes how waves travel between reflections in an enclosure, and in physics, it describes the average distance a particle can travel before impact with another object. In any case, it is most useful in systems that can be treated statistically. Lerner creates a system of colliding wavesiv, events, objects, and particles of language set to the measure of his form, which is put in motion every time the book is opened.
            Within this intricate system, the pieces of each movement are bound by the symbol for proportional variation in mathematical terms. The symbol looks like the sign for infinity with the right-hand parenthetical curve removed. It’s an open or broken infinity, suggesting a disruption of intimate bonds. Also, the mathematical equation for proportionality is typically written as a=cb, where c is a constant. In Lerner’s arithmetic, it could be said that a=Ari, b=Ben, and the constant of variation is language. And love. And the world, as it is to all lovers, is a function of their love.
            In another moment of metatextual candor, though, Lerner reminds us that “I planned a work / With appropriate delays, all signals seem / To issue from one speaker.” The keyv word, of course, is “seem.” As important as it is to remember that Lerner is not the only speaker, it’s also important to understand the nature of his structural strategies: “There is no way to read this / Once, and that’s love, or aloud.” Happily, the book keeps us coming back for more.

i  Terms like “movement” and “volume” are appropriate, as will be seen, to the themes of the book.
ii The last two lines above are a crafty reference to the structure of the prose poems in Angle of Yaw. This poem appears on the verso, or left-hand page of the opened book, and if you hold it up to the light, you can see through the page and the “Mean Free Path” recto (right-hand page) poem becomes visible, creating a block of text the size and shape of a typical Angle of Yaw prose poem. Thus Lerner literally and materially communicates through the page, treating it as an interface and window.
iii Nothing says sorry, honey like a book-length love poem, even if the book is as devoted to distraction as it is to, um… ah yes, love.
iv  sound waves, waves of the hand, waves of information, waves “rippling / Across the manmade lake,” waves of salutation to John Ashbery’s early-’80s, long meditative poem on love, conscience and consciousness, “A Wave”…
v  “Key” is another word that gets a thorough workout, in all of its musical, hardware and symbolic connotations.

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