Mean Free Path
The phrase “mean free path” belongs to the nomenclature of physics and designates the average distance covered by a particle or wave between successive impacts. Mean Free Path also names Ben Lerner’s third book of poetry just out from Copper Canyon Press. The transposition of such concepts from science to poetry might be met with suspicion, for such concepts are often used to sound cool rather than to speak to genuine confluence. However, the terms “mean free path” and “Doppler effect” (employed here as a section title in the form of “Doppler Elegies”) are completely suited to the form and content of this book. And, while the statement that this book’s form IS its content might seem to be an empty utterance because it is so often employed to describe work that this is true of only trivially, Mean Free Path is a rare case where saying so actually articulates the work. Via the book’s form, Lerner achieves languaged equivalents of physic’s terms in his meditations on love, loss, and the nature of writing.
Constructed of a dedicatory poem and four sections, the book will entice readers with interest in the kind of structure that allows a book to work on the scale of both the book-length project and the discrete poem-unit. Learner achieves this double function by employing formal elements in consistent patterns, thereby rendering both pattern and variations on pattern, liquid architecture. The language of Mean Free Path flows easily from stanza to stanza, from page to page, and over the printer’s ornament, ∝ (which is the mathematical symbol for “proportional to”), that punctuates the work. As such, each section has the feel of a long poem. At the same time, each page can be neatly taken out of its context and read as an autonomous poem, albeit as a poem with the jagged edges that imply interconnectivity.
The first and third of the book’s four sections use the same form and are both titled “Mean Free Path.” Each page of the “Mean Free Path” sections is occupied by two, nine-line stanzas separated from one another by a block of white space and a printer’s ornament. All lines are left justified and Lerner employs a capital letter at each line’s beginning. Both “Mean Free Path” sections are 18 pages long. Here is an example of a page from the second of these sections:
There must be an easier way to do this
I mean without writing, without echoes
Arising from focusing surfaces, which should
Should have been broken by structures
Hung from the apex in the hope of deflecting
In the hope of hearing the deflection of music
As music. There must be a way to speak
At a canted angle of enabling failures
The little collisions, the path of decay
But before it was used by the blind, it was used
By soldiers who couldn’t light their lamps
Without drawing fire from across the lake
Embossed symbols enable us to read
Our orders silently in total dark
In total war, the front is continuous
Night writing, from which descends
Night-vision green. What if I made you
Hear this with your hands
This page illustrates the form and mode of all of the poems in these sections. Here, each stanza has an independent, yet interrelated arc of consideration: the first stanza reflects on the difficulty of writing—particularly the difficulty of writing elegy. The second stanza reflects upon perception and the act of reading, noting that Braille technology was developed to allow soldiers to read at night without using light. The lines of thought through these individual topics are not direct and clear but are, rather, created out of subtle collisions of each line’s trajectory as it hits the white space at its end.
Key to this feeling of trajectory is the fact that each line in “Mean Free Path” begins with a capital letter, which propels the line like a particle moved along a singular path until it breaks against white space. We read: “There must have been an easier way to do this” and absorb the ambiguity of “easier way” and “this.” The line is open and searching: the “this” is at once the writing of the poem and the experiences of love, mourning, and thought—that is to say the experiences of life—that the speaker moves through. When we push on to the next line, “I mean without writing, without echoes” we get a continuation of the thought (the speaker is still thinking through the idea of an “easier way”) but a continuation that has been slightly jostled by the line’s contact with white space. In its qualification, its stuttering “without,” the line performs its own trajectory of clarifying rather than continuing the “searching” trajectory of the previous line, for the line is autonomous, and yet connected to what has come before. This technique of subtle collision and resetting is most obvious when Lerner employs repetition as in “Arising from focusing surfaces, which should/ Should have been broken by structures” but even in such moments the through-line of syntax smooths these collisions into the contours of a singular voice and thought. These jostlings propose an articulation of subjectivity in which one is constantly interrupted and reset, and yet still maintains the feeling of continuous being and thought.
Sections two and four of the book, both titled “Doppler Elegies,” employ a form that also advances via collision, but the breakings are louder, more intense and disruptive. In these sections the stanzas are also nine lines long, but some of the lines are indented and all of the lines do not begin with capital letters. Three stanzas share each page and Lerner employs only one line of white space between stanzas. Each “Doppler Elegies” section is eight pages long; each page is topped with the ∝ ornament. Regard the following example of from the first “Doppler Elegies” section:
They are passing quickly, those
houses I wanted to
speak in. Empty sets
Among my friends, there is a fight about
The important questions
cannot arise, so those must be hills
where the famous
winter. I am familiar with the dream
experience, killing birds
but I have already used
dream too often in my book
of relevance. Nothing can be predicated
Along the vanishing coast
tonight. You’ll have to wait until
remnants of small fires
the eye can pull new features from
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
in glass. The electric cars
This poem begins with continuity: the sentence traversing the first three lines sets a scene of movement as the speaker passes houses he “wanted to speak in.” But the poem seems to quickly break apart in the line break between the third and fourth line. The phrase “Empty sets” is disrupted not only by the syntax of what follows (“Among my friends, there is a fight about”) but also by the capital letter that begins the next line, “Among.” It is as if the phrase “Among my friends, there is a fight” collided with the remainder of “Empty set’s” sentence, blasting the remainder of the sentence-thought into oblivion.
However, if we travel down to line six of this stanza we find that the sentence beginning “Empty sets” was not irrevocably splintered but, rather, broken to once again resume and be completed with the words “cannot arise, so those must be hills/ where the famous/ winter.” The entire stanza, page, and section moves with this logic of collision and resumption, fragmentation and interweaving. At times the paths of resumption are clear (as in the above example), but at other times fragments are left embedded in their stanzas or doubly serve the meaning of the phrase that they’ve interrupted and the phrase that they have just begun. Throughout these moments of impact Lerner maintains a continuity of voice that proposes a flexible integrity of being that is formed by, and exists through, interruption and collision. Gaps, stutters, and redirections do not interrupt us, they constitute what we are.
The collisions and fragmentations created by the formal techniques of both “Mean Free Path” and “Doppler Elegies” create the feeling that it might be possible to sift through all of Lerner’s phrases to reconstruct an Urtext that moves linearly through his concerns. However, doing so would result in a book with a dramatically different (and weaker) meaning. Rearrangement and fracture are seminal to these meditations’ span from self to other. They allow Lerner to forge a sense of being and thought that moves beyond a facile notion of equation wherein the “personal is the political.” Instead, Lerner forges a bond of “and” and “both” as we find the thought of this continuous-feeling speaker interrupted, reset, and in collision. The attention Lerner directs to love is both personal (Lerner dedicates the book to “Ari” and uses her name throughout, often assuming the tone of intimate conversation) and plural. The attention turned to elegy is both personal (throughout the book Lerner scatters a litany of poets that have recently passed on; furthermore the poet gestures towards loss too close in proximity to name: “I wanted to open/ In a new window/ the eyes of a friend/ by force if necessary”) and political (the book stutters with war). Attention turned to writing is both self-referential (“I planned a work that could describe itself/ Into existence, then back out again”) and panoramic. While these concerns and the phrases Lerner uses to inscribe them would exist in this imagined Urtext, it is the quality of interconnectivity Lerner establishes through repeating formal techniques that forges and seals the book’s argument for the deeply interdependent nature of being.