Archive for April, 2010

Ben Lerner — Mean Free Path

Posted in Uncategorized on April 29, 2010 by Victor Schnickelfritz

In Mean Free Path Ben Lerner displays his prodigious talent for the cut-up once again. While in The Lichtenberg Figures Lerner used texts of lit theory and other cultural detritus to form his 14-line sonnet-thingies and in Angle of Yaw Lerner uses his cut-up technique to forge a social critique of American sports culture and the state of art after the collapse of the twin towers (among other things), then Mean Free Path is a book where Lerner uses his cut-up technique to explore human interiors and relationships. This is not an enviable task. The jump cut and sharp juxtaposition serves well to illustrate the odd incongruence of placing one social milieu next to another; however, when interiors are illustrated, the result strikes this reader as more of a vague jumble of feelings. Not any less true than the mix-n’-match of the social world, but somehow more disconcerting. It’s as if the play of shapes has given way to private brooding.

              . . . Can we unfold
What we can’t figure? Not without making
Cuts. Orient me, for the night is coming
Amphichiral, manifold, and looped.

Lerner prefigures much of his technique in these few lines from “Mean Free Path (I)” [Note: the book is made up of two “Mean free Path” sections and two “Doppler Elegies” sections which I will refer to respectively in both cases as I and II]. If the arrangement was more jigsaw puzzle in his previous books, Lerner wants to take us into that which is intricately folded. That which has left and right-handedness everywhere. That which is folded like taffy. That which hurtles into infinite regress. There is no doubt that Lerner wants to explore how lines and stanzas turn back in on themselves. Terms like “night-vision green” and “Canada” and “Surface Effects” and “Zukofsky” make several appearances in “Mean Free Path I”. They are brief returns to the fold. But there are also many singular appearances of strange words that Lerner has made a point to share, a kind of show and tell of odd vocabulary — “rebarbative,” “cantillation,” “Bezhin Meadow,” “prodromata,” “Filicide.” Such words are not showy in their use, and they represent for me a pushing out beyond the parameters of the system working alongside the aforementioned incursions.

One technique that is markedly different in “Mean Free Path” with respect to Lerner’s first two books is his penchant in this book for emphasizing disjunction. Again in “Mean Free Path I” he writes:

            . . . Make no mistake: the disjunction
The disjunction stays. Do not hesitate
To cut the most beautiful line in the name
Of form. The bread of words. Look for me
At genre’s edge. I’m going there on foot.

There are numerous displays of this throughout the book. Perhaps this added wrinkle is homage to Zukofsky. Perhaps it is Lerner’s decision to make his assemblages more “talky,” closer to human speech as in the repeated “but” in lines 5 and 6 below. One can hear the stutter. Also, “drifts in a process we call” is disrupted by “all these words look the same to me.” Also, the word “Fascism” disrupts the previous line.

Combine was the word I was looking for
Backk there in the trees. My blood is
Scandinavian Modern. I kind of lost it
But enough about me. To return with a difference
Haven’t we tried that before? Yes, but
But not from the air. Unique flakes form
Indistinguishable drifts in a process we call
all these words look the same to me
Fascism. Arrange the flowers by their price

These re-positionings (which appear in numerous instances throughout the book) this added weapon to his arsenal could also be an attempt to leave a few sharp edges on the 9-line stanzas that are employed throughout the entire book, rendering them as little Chinese stars.

I have a difficult time zeroing in on the basin of attraction for “Mean Free Path I” (a difficulty I shared with the three other long poems in the collection). For me, the relative lack of “subject” or main preoccupation in the poems make me feel as though the primary concern in these poems is not personal statement but rather process, technique. It is some kind of fiercesome technique. [Note: it makes me want to take up my pen and begin to engage in a similar technique — and that, in my opinion, is always a very high compliment to pay to any book.] Perhaps one might say that in the absence of any particular “statement” about stadiums or art or the representations of 9/11, that the personal statement is the process of writing. It says, “I am my process, my technique.” I just hope his mom doesn’t hear him say that.

The sense in Mean Free Path is that the quotidian is being depicted, the stroll of consciousness through the days’ minor preoccupations. From “Doppler Elegies I”

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 ax
I’d like to think I’m a different person
            latent image fading

The feeling of being closer in to the speaker is palpable. Lerner is setting the reader up to expect intimacy. The mention of Ari (who appears in all the poems) makes it appear that the poem is going to be a form of address to her. However, her mention tails off after the first third of the poem. Other matters seem to intercede. The reader learns “Robert is Dead” [Is this why this piece is an elegy? For Creeley?]; however, this thread is never picked up again in the poem. A little bit earlier the speaker says, “I’m pretty much dead / by any measure / already.” There is much more of a morose tone in “Doppler Elegies I” than in “Mean Free Path I” The cuts are not as sharp, not as surprising. They don’t seem geared to delight or surprise as much as depict confusion and inner turmoil. Twice in the poem is the phrase “Can we talk about the drinking”. The cuts are sloppier or they are made in such a manner as to illustrate lethargy, despair (as though the speaker didn’t care about the haphazard arrangement). Or perhaps the intent is to convey the natural shard-like quality of the cut-up without any of the pressure of authorial selection placed on the cuts.

The interiors with sudden overheard speech that populate, if not dominate, “Doppler Elegies I” suggest a reflective tone. One might even say the tone is self conscious as in the following stanza:

but will have to do
            what painting did
Dense smoke from the burning wells
for our parents. Ben
there is a man at the door who says
I’ve made small changes
            he found your notebook
throughout in red. The recurring dream
            contrived in places

Notice how line 5 would correspond to line 7 while line 6 would correspond to line 8. Yet within these lines we are told that “I’ve made small changes” and that “the recurring dream” is “contrived in places.” Lerner is purposely directing his lines so that there is contrivance within the dream. His mixed bag approach pits the dream-like quality of much of his dreamy jump-cuts next to a willful contrivance. Here the willed and the unwilled line up next to each other.

Is this a commentary on the nature of consciousness? Perhaps it is no commentary at all, but just artful arrangement done for effect. I think Lerner is too canny of a writer to rely solely on the intuition of artful placement. He is arranging his poems in this manner because he wants to make the larger statement, not just as a roll-out of a bag of clever tricks. Yet the part that is frustrating to me is that after giving him the benefit of the doubt on such a project (one that I must admit I could be projecting on him by mistake), I don’t know what that larger statement is. Boo hoo. Is it just a case of “poor manners” on Lerner’s part that he is withholding from me what I want?

In “Mean Free Path II” the title of the book begins to take on larger significance. The mean free path in physics is defined as “the average distance that a particle travels between successive impacts”. The mean free path is measured in the bubble chamber, and it is also a means of measuring the decline of intensity of a particle, a decay. Supplied with this knowledge, one can begin to read “Mean Free Path II” as a chronicle of collision and decay, a chronicle of discord.

As he often does, Lerner gives us a clue about how one should read his assemblages.

              . . . That’s why I speak
In a voice so soft it sounds like writing
Night writing. A structure of feeling
Broken by hand.

If ever there were a doubt that Lerner is crafting the brokenness of his nine-line stanzas, this should certify that he is dutifully doing so. Perhaps the breakage is emblematic of a broken attention span, which seems very odd appearing in a poem which is essentially a poem about reverence, an ode. Dare I say a love poem? [It might be quite disconcerting to find out that the Ari he is addressing throughout the book is actually a parakeet.]

However, Lerner could be seen as addressing the contemporary tone of affection complete with myriad distractions and delays. Love, American-Style, 2010. If this is an accurate reading of Lerner’s intentions or suggestions in the poems in Mean Free Path, then I wonder if the depiction of love as it is styled in the book is particularly constructive. Is it not reinforcing a negative stereotype of those who are hypermediatized — that we are too damn absorbed in such fare to pay attention to the real life entities that are around us. I wonder if Lerner’s dog (let’s presume he has one) could write a poem whether it would speak of its master’s addiction to glowing screens and talking boxes (I’m pretty certain that my dog would write such a poem). Is Lerner simply chronicling the emotional abuses we place on each other in the current 24/7 age of news cycles? Is the mantra of our age:

Yes, I love you. But let me take this call first.

“Mean Free Path II” then must be the love poem that aspires to be the anti-love poem. Lerner’s grief over this brings him to apology — “. . . for Ari. Sorry . . .” — the poem turns to remorse and downheartedness. One wonders what loss the “Doppler Elegies” are marking. Is the loss one of self-satisfaction, self-assurance? Are the losses mental, physical, spiritual?

              . . . I turned
I tore it. Now I see the elegy beneath
Long lines of cloud with poor opacity

This section in “Mean Free Path II” suggests that the main operation Lerner is concentrating on is the tear. At first the turn (as exemplified by the cut-ups in previous books) was employed, but now the renting will commence at full force. The tearing seems to be exaggerated, picking up new pace in “Mean Free Path II”.

In 2008 before he left for his job at the University of Pittsburgh and when he was still living in Northern California, I had the opportunity to listen to him give a reading at UC Davis, where he read a portion of a new manuscript (which became part of “Mean Free Path I”). I enjoyed it and eagerly looked forward to the poem in print (now in book form). However, Lerner did not consent to letting me post the reading as he felt that he hadn’t done a very good job of reading it on that particular day. Going over Mean Free Path (though other critics have asserted that Lerner could have just as easily composed this poem from back to front), I still insist that there was more joy, more jubilance in his cut-ups and repositions, his voice-overs and vicissitudes in “Mean Free Path I” than in the later sections of Mean Free Path. While I have no way of knowing what order the sections of the book were written, the tone of the “Mean Free Path I” is livelier. The pre-occupation is not so much about “love in the age of texting.” It’s more experiential, playful, (for sure there was more attention to odd vocabulary . . . and is the mention of Marvin Gaye a good fit for any other part of the book?). That section of the book is more assemblage of the joys of life, less contemplation overlooking the wing of an airplane.

So, if Mean Free Path is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Withdrawn and Distracted” what are we to make of its quality of suffering? Is its manner of display genuine and sympathetic? Or is this fashionable anguish brought to you by the makers of cracked vases? I generally tend to give a man the benefit of the doubt in his grief, yet I almost always question its public display (especially in poetry) as “my grief how thou art great.” Lerner’s book is immensely enjoyable and satisfying to read for its many writerly moves and configurations. It’s a stylist’s paradise. The techniques are always well-rendered and thoughtful. There’s nothing cheap about it. He inspires. Yet there is a lingering doubt in my mind about the project in its entirety, if there is need for another man’s grief (especially one so gifted and rewarded as Lerner has been). It’s not an easy trick to pull off, this “woe is me” stuff. It has been done to death in poetry. Lerner’s approach is fresh and ambitious. At this point in my reading of Mean Free Path I’m not sure if I prefer the public Ben Lerner or the private one.


Ben Lerner — Angle of Yaw

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on April 27, 2010 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Ben Lerner’s Angle of Yaw takes its title from the aeronautical term that describes the shifting of an airplane where its nose moves left and right while the plane continues on its line of travel. It is a motion that can best be appreciated when the viewer is positioned above or below the aircraft. The emphasis in this definition should be placed on the unusual perspective one must attain in order to make oneself aware of the plane’s motion.

In Angle of Yaw Lerner applies a similar perspective to the items and subjects he takes into consideration in the book. Mostly his concerns focus on the hyper-mediated American life out in the open, and mostly his jaunty meditations are brimming with absurdity and varying in tones from contempt to disgust to mild amusement.

He employs short, right-and-left-justified prose blocks throughout the majority of the book that frequently use the technique of assertion, negation and drift. One gets the feeling that one is witnessing a mind in argumentation mode even while that mind has moved on to other things. The argument is no longer the thing that matters. They strike this reader as prenatal thesis statements before they grow up to be video game addicts or abusers of public space.

The plethora of short prose poems are supported by three longer poems: “Begetting Stadia,” “Didactic Elegy,” and “Twenty-One Gun Salute For Ronald Reagan.”

These three poems all seem similarly poised on the edge of argument. “Begetting Stadia” seems more or less situated in a colossal sports stadium with the speaker making general references to sports writing and sport as spectacle. However, there are also allusions to advertising-speak in a way that reflects its overblown silliness:

“Sorcery cuts grease and glass like lightning”

General Disney gets clothes clean (with sorcery).
General Disney’s Chicken (with sorcery sauce).

It is not surprising though at the end of this poem the catastrophic has happened. The ersatz culture Lerner is critiquing through parody and not-so-thinly-veiled assault is caving in on itself. Occurring simultaneously is a kind of fleeing into nature, “We fled into the trees,” indicative of a reverse evolution, a return to a pre-primate position. Our heads cave in almost out of sympathy to the destroyed stadium.

But if we are only an extension of our stadium culture as Lerner is pointing this out, then in “Didactic Elegy” Lerner seems to be looking at the limited institutions of art and criticism itself. The somewhat tortured circumambulating logic of this dense, theory-speak-laden poem proceeds along the lines of Lerner’s patented assertion and negation:

It is no argument that the critic knows the artist personally.
Even if the artist is a known quantity, interpretation is an open struggle.
An artwork aware of this struggle is charged with negativity.
And yet naming negativity destroys it.
Can this process be made the subject of a poem?

but it can be made the object of a poem.

Several times Lerner uses the negation of a rhetorical question as a grounding point to push his discourse further from the core. These instances serve as structural elements within the piece.

Can this process be the subject of a poem?
No, but a poem may prefigure its own irrelevance.
. . . . .
Can an image be heroic?
No, but an image may proclaim its distance from the event it ostensibly depicts;

While there are many moments where the logic of this piece seems incredibly sound and one can follow the statement of assertion after assertion for a while, eventually the reader is led astray to such an extent that the author begins to undermine his claims. It is this distance from intention that Lerner locates in the first few lines:

I posit the critic to distance myself from intention, a despicable affect.
Yet intention is necessary if the field is to be understood as an economy.

What we have in “Didactic Elegy” is an economy of words, one where the repeated exchange of one phrase for another diminishes the value in terms of significance. The whole affair has lost its meaning while it goes through its semi-serious motions.

Later in the poem, though apparently eminently logical, it is the logic of the critic that seems most under assault:

For example, a syllogism subjected to a system of substitutions
allows us to apprehend the experience of logic
at logic’s expense.

One can hardly go very far in this poem without feeling the system of substitutions. The system of substitutions is the activity of the signifiers engaging in trade. The result is an economy that seems to be going nowhere, an economy that has become unhinged from its raison d’etre.

One seems to experience the effect of logic the same way one experiences the effect of an economy. Dizzying patterns of intention and exchange leave one wondering what it is all about, how one begins to plug in, how one begins to resolve the unresolvable.

Yet, the technique employed is only the subtext for the piece. In many of its more lucid moments, the poem wants to take on the image of the collapsing towers of 9/11. The speaker wants to articulate the deconstruction of this image. No longer are they objects of pity, horror and hero worship. The speaker wants to give this image a good vacuuming.

I think that we should draw a bold, black line across an otherwise white field
and keep discussion of its meaning to a minimum.
If we can close the event to further interpretation
we can keep the collapse from becoming a masterpiece.

One can only assume that the attempt to close the event to further interpretation is a kind of kidding. However, the serious nature of the rest of the piece almost has you going that it means what it says (even while it skirts the issue of intention).

In the final four lines Lerner asserts:

The meaninglessness of the drawing is therefore meaningful
and the failure to seek out value is heroic.
Is this all that remains of poetry?

Ignorance that sees itself is elegy.

The speaker takes shelter in the notion of meaninglessness and anti-heroic poses for poetry. The speaker then asks if this meaningless valueless void is all there is for poetry to inhabit. In a way this rhetorical question mirrors those that have come before, but instead of providing a “No” as negation, the speaker elegantly states that ignorance that sees itself is elegy.

If we are to take these words at face value, then the speaker is imploring the reader to acknowledge his/her own shortcomings in what he/she doesn’t know. This will be the most remarkable memorial that he/she could construct.

I’m not sure what this means for what remains of poetry, but it is likely that Lerner is saying that poetry that endeavors to eradicate its own ignorance is a form of marking the important events of the past. The way in which the voice in this piece is always pushing out to expand its boundaries reliably lives up to this call for action. The movement in the poem is that of a curious learner [hence the author’s surname?] incorporating more and more events and items into the mix, even at the expense of consistency and perfect order.

In “Twenty One Gun Salute to Ronald Reagan” Lerner creates 21 stanzas that follow the pattern of seven left-justified lines followed by two indented lines. The last two lines seem like rejoinders to the previous seven, but this is misleading as each single line often stands independent from the others. At the most two work in concert. The result is a pastiche of items that indicate the ghost of the 80s has come a-haunting. Many of these items date from the time Reagan was in office in the 80’s and suggest that the current attack-on-public-space originates from the Reagan era. Such nuggets include references to “Mr. Gorbachev,” the refusal to defend Poland from the east, the radio control tower telling a flight attendant in crisis to take deep breaths, proceeds from arms sales to the Contras, “Tear down this wall.”

Other favorites in the litany of items document “the contamination of the present” from the Reagan era:

An epistemology borrowed from game shows

Private-sector affluence, public-sector squalor

All I ask is that we stop executing the mentally handicapped.
But what if the mentally handicapped want to be executed?

Many of the other lines are taken from the running files of Lerner’s critique of America: American History and American Culture.

Why don’t we blame the sinking on Spain?

This is an obvious reference to the “sinking” of the Maine, which kicked off the Spanish-American War. Most respected scholars agree that the Maine was not attacked; therefore, there need not have been any escalation of violence on the part of the US. This line seems to hint at our current involvement in Iraq, but I think a missed opportunity to make it resonate with the Reagan era would have been to allude to the affair in Grenada. Why did the military go in there again? Was this a similarly manufactured crisis?

The general infatuation with “the show” and “the image” is what really riles Lerner in this poem. There are many references to emotions tried on for the purpose of effect. This is something that Reagan was expert at, and his prowess at such things has ushered in a new age of artificiality which some might call “the age of bullshit.” Lerner bristles at Reagan’s adeptness at sculpting a public and private persona. One suspects that Lerner does not feel it necessary to be similarly equipped. The public and the private persona merge into a singular “being in the world.”

But Lerner is not about to let himself off the hook either. The last line of the poem, “ Is this thing on?” could be the credo of every politician who has emerged in the age of mass media, but Lerner also seems to be suggesting that throughout the course of the poem he may have just been positioning himself to blab in front of the mic . . . and at the end he is poised to regret.

The bulk of Angle of Yaw is comprised of short prose poems that appear as short meditations on the confusion and absurdity of American life. These poems are the ones that are the liveliest in the book. Perhaps this is because they feel less like exploration of language and more like exploration of experience. If a Turing machine could have reproduced “Didactic Elegy” by employing some elaborate algorithm on a philosophically-rich text, then the short prose pieces would escape this fate mainly because there is a sense that the voice in those pieces could not have been written without attachment to a body. The body is felt largely in the skewed perspectives that crop up again and again within these pieces. The odd camera angles that Lerner holds makes the reader assume that this is not a disembodied voice.

Many of these short prose poems have been published in some of the most interesting literary periodicals around:

nbsp; nbsp; nbsp; Jacket 25
nbsp; nbsp; nbsp; Boston Review
nbsp; nbsp; nbsp; Common Knowledge [pdf]
nbsp; nbsp; nbsp; Beloit Poetry Journala>
nbsp; nbsp; nbsp;
Colorado Review [pdf]

I offer another here, my particular favorite.

If it hangs from the wall, it’s a painting. If it rests on the floor, it’s a sculpture. If it’s very big or very small, it’s conceptual. If it forms part of the wall, if it forms part of the floor, it’s architecture. If you have to buy a ticket, it’s modern. If you are already inside it and you have to pay to get out of it, it’s more modern. If you can be inside it without paying, it’s a trap. If it moves, it’s outmoded. If you have to look up, it’s religious. If you have to look down, it’s realistic. If it’s been sold, it’s site-specific. If, in order to see it, you have to pass through a metal detector, it’s public.

This piece seems to epitomize Lerner’s self-described project of examining the assault on public space and public speech. Here that examination of public space leads the reader to regard public space as pathetic. Upon first reading of this poem, this reader issued forth a painful guffaw.

This speaks to one of the extraordinary strengths of Lerner’s efforts with these short poems. They are observant, witty, critically very sharp and yet they amuse and entertain. Not an easy thing to do in an age where the entertaining statement can quickly become shrill.

It is more than a little bit of a relief to find that a book that has been so highly praised and has had such a high volume of attention paid to it to be deserving of such. I have not always been so generous to other high profile books in the last few years. Ben Lerner has set down a marker for twenty-something poets to aim their bocce balls at.

Stylistically, though, as I reflect on many of these pieces, I can’t help but notice the similarity to Rosmarie Waldrop’s poems in Reproduction of Profiles and <Lawn of Excluded Middle. The continual degradation of the taut, formal statement is driven by the impulse to attach ever-more-disparate material to the machinery of a paragraph. One gets the feeling of being sent into a funhouse labyrinth of mirrors with an instrument that allows one to pick the high-hanging fruit.

My lone detracting comment is that I was not always able to follow the thread from the longer pieces through to the shorter pieces. For sure, there is the “theme” of the degradation of public space and public speech, but this isn’t always on the main stage in “Didactic Elegy” or “Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan.” Perhaps one doesn’t need such overarching order for a book. I kept going back and forth on that idea. In the end I wasn’t satisfied that the lack of order or inherent structure, the openness, if you will, was in line with the rest of the book. Its critique seemed too canny. However, I should let Lerner have the last word on this in his interview with Kent Johnson in Jacket

The air war, the flight simulator, the crop circle, space travel, the marching band forming a flag at halftime for the omniscient Goodyear blimp — such ideologically rich phenomena recur throughout the book. Maybe their recurrence imposes an order on the poems ironically homologous to the cosmetic order such forms aspire to impose on us?

All is recurrence. Life is that non-linear system which is drained to basins of attraction through the system’s reiterated paths through phase space.

Another way to say this is that Lerner’s prose/verse systems repeatedly drain into chaos and despair and utter helplessness in the face of an American culture becoming unhinged from its public space and its language. And we’ll all go down laughing into its maw.

I concede that this may be the book’s intent as well, especially if one reads Yaw as a variant spelling of the Levantine god of chaos [I also concede that this may be my deep reading-into].

Let’s hope that Lerner finds more joy in his next offerings, even in the stupidity and absurdity that is often at the heart of American life. It’s a long dark road from your late twenties to the end.

For all its fine moments, there is no hint of a considered project for how to move through the ersatz culture we inhabit . . . unless one considers the project to be as suspicious as hell about all the signs and markers that are employed in it, to employ a sneer in order to maintain one’s health. To be fair, though, this should not be the agenda of a book as much as it is the agenda of a life.