Ben Lerner — Mean Free Path

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.

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