By Ben Lerner. (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)


The form of Ben Lerner’s Mean Free Path is its primary subject. “I planned a work that could describe itself / Into existence, then back out again / Until description yielded to experience.” Lerner uses the concept of “mean free path”—the average distance a particle travels between collisions—as a model; here a thought travels across the free space of a line, and at each line break its direction is changed. One is continually unsure what the next line will contain and to which prior line, if any, it will refer. A cumulative effect results from the regular references to the book’s design: because those moments are often the most direct, an intimacy develops between poet and reader. “I did not walk here all the way from prose / To make corrections in red pencil / I came here to open you up / To interference heard as music.” What Lerner describes here is genuine experiment. Structure is valued over content, so that reading delivers possibilities rather than a predetermined message. “Barbara is dead / Until I was seventeen, I thought windmills / Turned from the fireworks to watch / Their reflection in the tower / Made wind.”  “Made wind” is a return to an interrupted “windmills … made wind,” but also an action that results from distinct thoughts being worked together. The opening “Dedication” gives insight into one of Lerner’s techniques: “a long / lecture lost on me, negative / mnemonics reflecting / weather / and reflecting / reflecting.” Is a “negative mnemonic” a device that disrupts memorized material? Or is it a statement made in a way that causes it to be forgotten? Lerner does both. The numbness of idiom is cracked open by the close attention with which each line must be read, but the same experience does not allow one to retain for long the content of those lines. Tonally, Lerner has become more subdued and perhaps more confident. Compare “I am wearing a Mikhail Gorbachev Halloween mask,” from Angle of Yaw, with “I’m writing this one / As a woman comfortable with leading / A prisoner on a leash.” Also, while he has previously written long sequences, Mean Free Path is much more a single piece. It is divided in four parts: two equal-length sections titled “Mean Free Path” alternate with two “Doppler Elegies.” The titles signal a formal shift—for instance, shorter lines in “Doppler Elegies” alter the rate of collision—but the same subject matter is dispersed throughout—death, love, air travel, reading, war. Ironically, Lerner’s most conceptual work to date is also his most personal.  Framed by distortion, moments of emotionality have been freed for the reader to hear: “We can’t / Distinguish rounds of ammunition from / Applause. Speak plainly. Keep your hands / On the table. Do not flee into procedure /Do not wait for a surpassing disaster / To look your brother in the eye and speak / Of love.”

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