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Ben Lerner
Mean Free Path
A review / essay
by David Gorin
84 pp. Copper Canyon Press, 2010. US USD$16. 978–1-55659–314-7 paper.

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner

“The Art of Losing, Re-mastered”

Also see Dialog on Love: Ben Lerner and Aaron Kunin in conversation, in this issue of Jacket.


In the middle of Mean Free Path, Ben Lerner’s third book of poetry, the speaker addresses the reader in the voice of a performer interested in making pattern out of what we usually call noise:


I have come here tonight to open you up
To interference heard as music [1]


If you were a teenager in the 1980s and 90s, as Lerner was, you may have grown up listening to punk, post-punk, grunge, industrial, and glitch, in which musicians deliberately interfered with the transmission of clean signals — using distorted guitars, feedback, lo-fi recordings, poorly-tuned instruments, and screamed or mumbled vocals drowned under a wash of sound — to project a dirty music, whose vitality inhered in the way it broke open the new and increasingly loss-resistant technologies of reproduction. This sort of interference is part of the artist’s job in a culture saturated with all-too-perfect images: he either commits to the candor of iconoclasm, shattering the air-brushed perfection of images that pretend to be empty and easy but are not, or else relaxes into an ironic or unconscious pop-mannerism by reconstructing that perfection endlessly, in imitation of a reality which itself seems merely a Disneyland of seeming.


Lerner was born into these dominant options, and one of the signature moves of his career thus far has been to interfere with the idioms of contemporary American culture — advertising, literary theory, suburban slang, political theater, poetics, science and technology — by placing each in range of the others’ ironizing influence. His last book, Angle of Yaw, did such work mostly in prose poems like this one, quoted in full: “All across America, from under- and aboveground, from burning buildings and deep wells, hijacked planes and collapsed mines, people are using their cell phones to call out, not for help or air or light, but for information.” [2] The shock of that last word comes from the mutual interference between ‘help or air or light,’ which resonate in a lyric and metaphoric register of exaltation, and ‘information,’ which resists being taken metaphorically, and in our common use of it does not so much resonate as hum neutrally, an air-conditioner. Lerner leaves it to us to decide whether calling out for information in moments of crisis is more or less necessary than calling out for light (or whether indeed they are precisely the same), but what’s clear is that each word interferes with the other such that both can assume new valences not typically sanctioned by their native registers.


In spite of this semantic interference, the meticulously orchestrated poems in Angle of Yaw tend to assume a tone and cadence of authority that grounds their slippages; we get the impression of an organizing consciousness very much in control of his materials. The texture of Mean Free Path, by contrast, resembles a transcript of a broken record:


By any measure, it was endless
            winter. Emulsions with
Then circled the lake like
This is it. This April will be
Inadequate sensitivity to green. I rose
early, erased for an hour
            Silk-brush and axe
I’d like to think I’m a different person
            latent image fading

around the edges and ears
            Overall a tighter face
now. Is it so hard for you to understand
From the drop-down menu
In a cluster of eight poems, I selected
sleep, but could not
            I decided to change everything
Composed entirely of stills
            or fade into the trees

but could not
            remember the dream
save for one brief shot
of a woman opening her eyes
Ari, pick up. I’m a different person
In a perfect world, this would be
            April, or an associated concept
Green to the touch
            several feet away [3]


This poem, the first in one of two sequences titled “Doppler Elegies,” is an emulsion of waves, and a paradigmatic example of the poems found in this book: distracted in texture, ruthlessly enjambed, and riddled with evidence of cut-and-paste recombination in which phrases from one site (“This April will be”) return elsewhere with a difference (“this would be / April”). Many readers will feel the impulse to parse the dirty signal into cleaner streams by searching for thematic and syntactic continuities between nonadjacent lines — retrieving, for instance, the description of Chris Marker’s La Jetée that emerges when you read “Composed entirely of stills” as continued by “save for one brief shot / of a woman opening her eyes.” To read this way may sound exhausting, but it’s also addictive: once you discover the possibility of cohesion at a distance, it’s hard to resist sleuthing for secret orders in the code. This practice resembles that of the artist who seeks closure and completion against the broken openness of a shattered form; given the shards of a story, it reassembles towards a whole.


Lerner encourages this mode of reading by dropping hints throughout the book that it might have been composed from lines culled from older drafts (“In a cluster of eight poems, I selected / … / I decided to change everything”), tempting us to interpolate a story of composition that would explain the text’s disjunctions the way a detective would explain a mysterious crime. The story might go like this: the poet wanted to write something of consequence — a love poem for his wife Ari, an elegy for Robert Creeley, Barbara Guest, a friend killed in a car accident — but felt consistently dissatisfied by his attempts, which seemed to diminish or bring premature closure to the subjects they should serve by leaving open. After repeated stitching and unstitching failed to produce the best words in their best order, the frustrated poet decided to braid this failure in, cutting and pasting lines from several rejected drafts to make a new sequence, with strands from the love poems laid beside those of elegy, reflections on form or Fascism commingling with language from Keats, a news report on the Iraq war, a poem from Angle of Yaw, or a conversation with Ari. To what extent Lerner actually produced Mean Free Path by this method, we cannot know for sure, but each time your eyes move over a line break you must make a provisional choice either to accept the disjunctive text as it stands and move from line to line continuously, ignoring signs of interruption, or to reassemble pieces of the putative drafts using those signs as guides.


Though the constraints of reading ask us to choose one mode at every turn, Lerner is too shrewd and playful to let us get comfortable in either reading practice. His poems lead us into the “mistake” of reading continuity across disparate streams by distressing our ability to tell the difference between instances of disjunction and continuation: initial capitalization is no sure indication of a “new start” to syntax (consider the lines above beginning with “April” or “I”), and its absence is no sure indication that the line continues its predecessor. After the two page “Dedication” that begins the book, not a single line of Mean Free Path ends with punctuation. These formal features produce lines whose syntax is promiscuous, ready to hook up with multiple partners at once, whether adjacent or at a distance. Each time we choose a way to read the poem, we stumble into difficulties that suggest our choice was merely one option among others:


                        I wanted to open
In a new window
            the eyes of a friend
by force if necessary. [4]


How many sentences do we have here? If you read these lines as one uninterrupted sequence, you’ve repressed the capitalization of the second line’s initial letter, which hints at a new syntax. If such capitalization is your guide, you’ll be brought up short when the sentence beginning “In a new window” closes down without a verb, and probably suspect that “to open,” which looks a little lonely up there without an object, would have paired nicely with those eyes. But if you make that pairing, dismissing line two as a third wheel, you’re bound to experience the shock of a mixed message at line three, whose lowercase first letter pressures you to regard “the eyes of a friend” as a continuation of the second line, with whom it couples no less happily than with the first. The brilliance and excitement of this work isn’t simply that there are many interesting ways to read it — all good art does that — but that to read it one way forces your eyes open to others. The more one tries to close in on the poem’s normative form, whether through reconstruction or an embrace of the given order, the more it opens to the play of new relations. This poetry models an ethics of choosing, in which we’re bound to acknowledge our decisions as founded on provisional, imperfect norms and knowledge, without entertaining the fantasy that we might be absolved of choice.


The absence of end-line punctuation in Mean Free Path signals a shift in strategy for Lerner, whose first two books tend towards a tone of stunned or deadpan irony produced by machine-gunned end-stops, in which enjambment is a penultimate variation rather than a theme. In “21 Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan,” the last sequence in Angle of Yaw, Lerner brought his strategy of persistent end-stopping towards its limit by allowing only one or two enjambed lines in each of its nine-line stanzas:


The floral arrangement is based on outmoded ideology.
I am unmatched in my portrayal of subtle human emotions.
Workers report cracks in our modes.
            There is no beauty like the beauty of a throwaway line
            the split second before it’s thrown. [5]


The arrangement of these snappy lines performs and remarks on an addiction to one-liners, to the self-sufficient sound-bytes that came to characterize commercial and political speech in the first era to see America elect a screen actor for its president. “I want the form to enact the numbing it describes,” Lerner tells us, and it does; its little shocks, packaged with a neatness that belies their disruptive force, arrive and give way to others at the speed of television, courting the reader’s limited attention by miming the sources of his distraction.


In turn, the open-ended disjunction in Mean Free Path suggests a speaker less like the television and more like the viewer, suffering from a lifetime of information overload:


I was tired of my voice, how it stressed
Its quality as object with transparent darks
This is a recording. This living hand
Reached in error. I hold it towards you [6]


This sounds like distracted speech, and it is; but it’s also a speech designed to shock the distracted consciousness into attention through the estranging recombination of familiar echoes. The poem escorts us from the first words of Keats’ “This Living Hand” into the language of an answering machine in a way that at first seems grammatically natural, then a confusion of sources, and in the end uncannily appropriate; each is the speech you get when the person you reach for is gone. In an interview in 1965, Creeley spoke of a poetry in which “words are returned to an almost primal circumstance, by a technique that makes use of feedback, that is, a repetitive relocation of phrasing where words are returned to an almost objective state of presence so that they speak rather than someone speaking through them.” This “feedback” is what happens when Lerner remixes messages from one stanza into another: each time a word occurs that we’ve seen before, we feel the sharp fuzz of interference, the typographic and semantic equivalent of déjà vu.


Mean Free Path takes for its title a scientific term for the average distance a particle or wave can travel before colliding with another, and this figure governs the poem right down to its syntax. Think of the putatively original poems as waves, or sources of waves, reflecting off the walls of the enclosed space of the poem, each passing over itself and each other (as pictured in the symbol for proportion “∝” that stands in for these poems’ titles), cresting in troughs left by other waves or superimposing to create crests or depths of greater magnitude. Two lines frequently vie for connection with a third, whose magnitude of potential meaning increases proportionally:


It’s hard to believe                         It’s hard to believe
When he calls, I pretend                                                    >→   he’s gone.
he’s gone [7]                           When he calls, I pretend


Just as the refrain of a song tends to pick up new meanings as the song progresses, modified slightly or starkly by each intervening verse, so does this third term increase in relation to each of its potential mates. The third line is what we might call an instant or nonce refrain: a piece of language which bears a multiplied load of significance on its first appearance — like love at first (s/c)ite.


Of the refrains in Mean Free Path, the most conspicuous is “Ari,” the proper name of Lerner’s wife, occurring fourteen times throughout. Poets, even contemporary ones, tend to confine the proper names of those they love to the safe space set aside for dedications or acknowledgments, reserving the space of the poem itself for pronominal address, which points to its referent without quite laying hands on it. What motivates this segregation is in part a desire for unlimited address, and in part an iconoclastic refusal to submit the singular other to the Midas touch of representation — that is, a refusal to make the loved one as fungible a commodity as language, one more emblazoned Beatrice or Laura in the history of those Beloveds whose names are no longer proper to their persons. Mean Free Path isn’t so much a book-length love poem as the record of an attempt to write one that breaks down under the pressure to enunciate the lover’s name without effacing the nonce-ness of her identity. Its gambit is that a proper name can indicate particularity without dictating its limits, to the extent that the name is repeated in a stutter rather than defined.


Lerner’s most immediate model for the difficulties involved in speaking of love is Robert Creeley. Creeley’s poem “For Love,” published in a volume of that name and dedicated to Creeley’s second wife Bobbie, is a masterpiece of hesitation and self-correction whose failures of fluency serve Lerner as both model and material. “Yesterday I wanted to / speak of it” Creeley begins, but can’t bring himself to do much more than speak about his need to speak of it:


If the moon did not…
no, if you did not
I wouldn’t either, but
what would I not

do, what prevention, what
thing so quickly stopped.
That is love yesterday
or tomorrow, not

now. [8]


Yeats closed one famous poem on a similar subject with the image of lovers “grown / as weary-hearted as that hollow moon” — reason enough to make one reach for a different figure — and many poets writing after him grew weary of using such eloquent, imagistic stock footage to convey an experience characterized by the failure of eloquence. [9] “The weakness of Imagism” wrote George Oppen, is visible when “a man writes of a moon rising over a pier who knows nothing about piers and is disregarding all that he knows about the moon.” [10] Creeley’s speaker quickly turns away from his lunar metaphor, as if suddenly struck by Oppen’s feeling that figurative language will fail to bring him closer to the thing he wishes to say. Nevertheless, the poem’s power rests on Creeley’s decision to let the moon stand as a false start, a mistake more evocative than success would be.


Mean Free Path elegizes Creeley by dropping his name and picking up his method, but that method returns with a difference. Whereas Creeley’s delays tend to give the impression of a person speaking with difficulty, Lerner’s read more like errors produced by a machine:


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
Be unashamed. Let those who object to the
But that’s familiar rage. It isn’t a system
It is a gesture whose power derives from its
Failure, a child attempting to gather
Us into her glitter flecked arms [11]


There’s an obvious disjunction between the fifth and sixth lines above, but notice also the repetition of “be” between lines four and five. This “stutter,” associated with the fraught act of speaking of love (and appearing in the first line of For Love), is a specific formal technique one finds throughout the book, enacted when the word or phrase ending one line reoccurs immediately after the break. Think of it as reproducing what happens when a CD skips during the chorus of a song to a different moment in the chorus, so the listener can’t tell whether she’s missed a second or a second verse. In each case, there’s no way to measure what was lost until, after a little delay, the song either continues on schedule or surprises you with its closing gestures, come too soon.


The vertigo one feels after the trauma of loss or in the presence of what one loves, Lerner implies, is that you don’t know how much you’ve lost, or how to speak of love, until much later; the most traumatic shocks, too strong or swift to enter experience through the front door, return in dreams, neuroses, and an uncanny knock at a window on the second floor. What makes this book so masterful is that such disorientation is enacted rather than described, so the reader has no choice but to experience it. Does “Be unashamed” follow from the line before it, or is there information lost between them that might be found elsewhere? Did some other, lost poem enjoin us: “If you would speak of love / Be unashamed”? If we take these lines to be continuous, should we read the stuttering repetition of the word “be” as a sign that the speaker has just changed his mind about whether or not to be unashamed? Are we to stutter even in the absence of shame, or to be unashamed to stutter?


The answer is: all of the above. Lerner creates situations where the reader has a choice of paths, and where the right choice is, as Wallace Stevens had it, not between but of. Lerner has done his math: “There are three hundred sixty two thousand // Eight hundred eighty ways to read each stanza.” That amounts to the number of possible ways one could rearrange the nine lines stanzas of the “Mean Free Path” section. If you’re reading those lines as a continuous sentence, you’ve already come to the same figure:


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 [12]


There’s a major turn at the end of the penultimate poem in the first sequence of elegies, when suddenly the rule of promiscuity or superimposition is modified by being unenforced, if not suspended:


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 [13]


This is the first time in the sequence that we’ve seen so many lines without the shock of patent syntactic interruption. The initial caps that tend to signal the incursion of a new syntax are absent, except for the liminal case of “April”; each other stanza in the volume has at least two. The sentence as a whole flows together through the first six lines without giving the reader serious pause. This moment of formal relaxation is a point where, to borrow a phrase from the poem “Didactic Elegy” in Lerner’s previous book, “the failure of flatness” turns into “an expression of depth” — where for a moment the lines do not interfere with our sense of a unified speaking voice and its implied subjectivity. [14] What makes this gesture exciting is that many of the words seamlessly integrated here have appeared elsewhere in the volume in situations of estrangement; by this point, we’ve already encountered ‘Ari’, ‘April’, ‘period’, ‘keys’, ‘hand’, and ‘window’, often at the same place in the line or stanza as they appear here. If we can feel the strangeness, the echoed, recirculated, or polysemic quality of a word surfacing in a context free of disjunction, then we begin not so much to suspect that no word is stable in its meanings even in an apparently “natural” situation, but to experience that fact. At the same time, we feel the pleasure of discovering continuity and order in the provisional coherence of chaotic elements.


The moment above strikes me as a corollary to the “one brief shot / of a woman opening her eyes” in La Jetée: in a sea of “stills,” we have one breathtaking moment when the still frames run together to produce a plausible illusion of breath. In each case, a work limited to surfaces is allowed a moment of running depth. The estranging principles of both film and poem, having become expected, estrange us further when suddenly they’re gone. And in both cases, the strange, temporary de-estrangement corresponds to a moment of intensified pathos. [15] What interests me most in this gesture is the way that the breaking or modification of form coincides with a return to something personal, nearly sentimental, almost confessional, closer to common speech patterns, an unselfconscious inhabitation of a subject position — a de-estranged first-person perspective returning to apologize for seeming “distant.” “Destrangement” might be an ungainly word for this effect, but its very ungainlines — the way it projects strangeness while signifying its removal — captures some of the feeling I catch in the pivot moments of these works, where the relaxation of estrangement is itself a form of estrangement, but one that allows us to experience a “normal” use of language as extraordinary, as in a film ‘composed entirely of stills’ a woman opening her eyes is an epiphany.

Works Cited

Creeley, Robert. Selected Poems 1945–2005. Edited by Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: University of California, 2008

Lerner, Ben. Mean Free Path. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2010.

———. Angle of Yaw. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2006.

Oppen, George. Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers. Edited by Stephen Cope. Berkeley: University of California, 2007.

Yeats, William Butler. Collected Poems. Edited by Richard Finneran. New York: Scribner, 1996.


[1] Ben Lerner, Mean Free Path, (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2010), 43.

[2] Ben Lerner, Angle of Yaw, (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2006), 15.

[3] Mean Free Path, 29.

[4] Mean Free Path, 33.

[5] Angle of Yaw, 120.

[6] Mean Free Path, 45.

[7] Mean Free Path, 35.

[8] Robert Creeley, Selected Poems 1945–2005, ed. Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California, 2008), 83.

[9] William Butler Yeats, Collected Poems, ed. Richard Finneran (New York: Scribner, 1996), 81.

[10] George Oppen, Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, ed. Stephen Cope (Berkeley: University of California, 2007). 82.

[11] Mean Free Path, 19.

[12] Mean Free Path, 43.

[13] Mean Free Path, 35.

[14] Angle of Yaw, 66.

[15] I feel something similar at the end of Lerner’s “Didactic Elegy,” when the poem breaks one of its central formal constraints by responding to its own questions not with the coldly rhetorical “No, / But… ” it has trained us to expect after each question mark, but with a positive first-person assertion, shadowed by that I’s long absence. “Didactic Elegy” runs interference on its affect laden subject matter (the collapse of the twin towers) by pitching itself in the register of a lecture on aesthetics, dismissing the personal “I” for the critical “eye” in its first few stanzas, so the return of the first person comes as a hole in the poem’s order.

David Gorin

David Gorin

David Gorin is a PhD student in English Literature at Yale University and a first-year in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His writing has appeared in The Believer.

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