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Mean Free Path

by Ben Lerner

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502447,595 (3.75)1
"Lerner [is] among the most promising young poets now writing."--Publishers Weekly "Sharp, ambitious, and impressive." --Boston Review National Book Award finalist Ben Lerner turns to science once again for his guiding metaphor. "Mean free path" is the average distance a particle travels before colliding with another particle. The poems in Lerner's third collection are full of layered collisions--repetitions, fragmentations, stutters, re-combinations--that track how language threatens to break up or change course under the emotional pressures of the utterance. And then there's the larger collision of love, and while Lerner questions whether love poems are even possible, he composes a gorgeous, symphonic, and complicated one. You startled me. I thought you were sleeping In the traditional sense. I like looking At anything under glass, especially Glass.You calledme. Like overheard Dreams. I'm writing this one as a woman Comfortable with failure. I promise I will never But the predicate withered. If you are Uncomfortable seeing this as portraiture Close your eyes. No,you startled Ben Lerner is the author of three books of poetry and was named a finalist for the National Book Award for his second book,Angle of Yaw. He holds degrees from Brown University, co-foundedNo: a journal of the arts, and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.… (more)
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Engagement with poetry consists in a reader encountering structured text and in some way responding to it. That moment of response, when textual meaning coalesces and response begins might be modelled by the mean free path of a particle, which in physics is the average distance it travels before colliding with another particle. Once that collision occurs, once meaning triggers response, everything is off again in different directions, reflected, refracted, repelled, reconstituted. Ben Lerner’s fractured semantics in these poems represents what that might be like, may be like, possibly, when set upon a page. As such these poems, as a whole or in parts, are either objects of such a process, or more tellingly, an attempt to jolt the reader into a similar participatory process, i.e. engagement.

The temptation, naturally, is to take Lerner’s recurring words or imagines, even whole phrases, and seek to reconstruct a seamless semantic whole. Better to resist. Likewise, the reader may, even as they read, be thinking about Lerner’s process. Did he begin with a semantic whole and, as he says, “cut and paste” to create the result, frustrating though that may be? Should I, as a reader, be seeking to return the text to its original form if only to then fracture it again as he has done? Is that my task? No. I don’t think so. Our task is to engage with the finished object. And that is going to be, itself, a fractured process. Just go with it.

One advantage of Lerner’s method, whatever it might be, is that he achieves a poetry that is (frustratingly?) non-reductive. I can’t in any easy or plausibly truthful way provide a single sentence that tells you what it is about. Though I could offer halting gestures. And so the fragmentation, the mean free path of meaning, results in a sensibly objective poetry, one that is exactly what it appears to be.

Highly recommended. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Oct 11, 2019 |
It's the rare book of poetry that's addictive, but this one is. I read the entire book mostly in one afternoon. It is a page-turner, a rapid-fire feather-assault of words, textures, images. It is a complex construction, one that defies comprehension after one reading. I'll have to come back to this again, multiple times, to be able to offer any more than this, but I will, and I think I'll get it a little more each time. ( )
  plenilune | Feb 20, 2011 |
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"Lerner [is] among the most promising young poets now writing."--Publishers Weekly "Sharp, ambitious, and impressive." --Boston Review National Book Award finalist Ben Lerner turns to science once again for his guiding metaphor. "Mean free path" is the average distance a particle travels before colliding with another particle. The poems in Lerner's third collection are full of layered collisions--repetitions, fragmentations, stutters, re-combinations--that track how language threatens to break up or change course under the emotional pressures of the utterance. And then there's the larger collision of love, and while Lerner questions whether love poems are even possible, he composes a gorgeous, symphonic, and complicated one. You startled me. I thought you were sleeping In the traditional sense. I like looking At anything under glass, especially Glass.You calledme. Like overheard Dreams. I'm writing this one as a woman Comfortable with failure. I promise I will never But the predicate withered. If you are Uncomfortable seeing this as portraiture Close your eyes. No,you startled Ben Lerner is the author of three books of poetry and was named a finalist for the National Book Award for his second book,Angle of Yaw. He holds degrees from Brown University, co-foundedNo: a journal of the arts, and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

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