Daniel E. Pritchard on Mean Free Path

In the Familiar Ways

a review by Daniel E. Pritchard

“The reason the siren slides is because it doesn’t hit you,” said astronomer John Dobson. He was explaining the Doppler Effect, that phenomenon of physics every urban resident knows by heart: it's the ambulance siren passing on the street, pitch fluctuating according to the waves’ compression as the source moves toward, then past you. It is as natural as birdcalls or the sound of crickets. Maybe more so. “Because it doesn’t hit you” is also, in a way, the definition of Mean Free Path: the average distance a particle can travel before it collides with another object. Movement is central to both ideas, its expression like a refined dance, and its observation, cataloged in measurements and sensory effects, characterized by relationships. Or, as Ben Lerner writes in his new book, Mean Free Path, “It’s the motion, not the material, not the nouns / But the little delays.”

In Mean Free Path, Lerner’s poems assume a panoply of voices and rhetoric that converge in like a spilled-out bag of Skittles. Each line advances until its inevitable collision with another. The importance of delay is emphasized throughout the book, and it is a detail instructive for readers. We are alerted both to delays in the completion of his syntax within the poems — sentences broken by lines from other sentences, “A live tradition broadcast with a little delay” — as well as the importance of our own delay, of slowing the pace of our consumption. The poems are “structured like language / with appropriate delays:” conversational, narrative, at times lyrical, but often interrupted, intertwined, and needful of our lingering. The modifier “appropriate” here is crucial. Lerner struggles openly, as so many poets today do, with the laze and ineffectuality of our common modern language, where action, association, and intention trump actuality and content. Delay is appropriate, then, in each sense: one should neither rush through the text nor pretend the interruptions are not there.

Mean Free Path is divided into four sections. The first and third sections are titled “Mean Free Path,” and consist of a series of nine-line, single stanza poems; the second and fourth sections are titled “Doppler Elegies,” and are made up of poems with three, nine-line stanzas. It is structurally and thematically similar to Angle of Yaw, Lerner’s previous book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Both are concerned with the connection of rhetoric and ethics, and both alternate sequences of poems in different, fairly rigid forms. Here, the similarities cease. Angle of Yaw echoes Lerner’s first collection, the loose sonnet sequence The Lichtenberg Figures, much more strongly than either of those resemble Mean Free Path.

In this new book, Lerner has made an adjustment (which I might argue is an advance) in thinking about language and verse, at least on the level of line and stanza. Where before his poems were constructed of aphoristic, sometimes surreal, often humorous complete statements and sentences, in Mean Free Path the poems are a tangle, full of syntactical ambiguity. Sentences seem to compete for dominance within the poems, persisting over or being broken off by several lines at a time, sometimes offering two possibilities of continuation. For example, consider this section of “Mean Free Path:”

I’m not above being understood, provided

The periodic motion takes the form of

Work is done on the surface to disturb

Traveling waves. The distances increase

The manmade lake. Metals that behave

In value as the last observer turns away

Like water give us courage to dissolve

And walks out of the frame into

The genre, but not the strength. Wait

We can follow the meaning through the first two lines or treat each of the two as separate openings. The syntax is disrupted by the next three lines, each of which offer discrete possible continuations. There are several statements, some more plausible than others, being developed in a mix-and-match of the first half. The final lines clarify what came before by over-complicating the syntax, making incomprehension the delineation of the poem’s limits. Or to put it more simply, one can read the poem in several ways until the last few lines make some, but not all, of those readings totally nonsensical. Absolute clarity is denied, but a haze of meanings is left aloft like gunsmoke.

A poem like this requires that the reader delay, re-read, and parse out the several possibilities patiently. It requires the type of effort on the reader’s part that avant garde critics have demanded for decades — that the reader become an active participant in the meaning of a text. But no elder poet has achieved in their work what Lerner has with Mean Free Path: that balance whereby both the disruptions to and the continuity of language are a shock; where the language is communicative enough to connect those disruptions to the reader’s empathy.

Shifting back and forth within the nine lines of each poem in the sequence to puzzle out readings, one does become accustomed to this style, although a sense of clarity is deferred until well into the volume. I found that it began to affect my reading of other poets; Robert Frost, somehow, does not benefit from the approach. But all this is not to say that Lerner denies any simpler pleasures, along the way, of what he might call “surface effects.” Classically lyric images and lines dot the collection, rare but enjoyable, like spotting a carnival from a plane as you land: “Birds were these little ships that flew and sang;” “Reflective ceilings allow us to receive;” “Sheets of rain create a still space in the city;” or,

In your work, I sense a certain

distance, like a radio left on

Across the water, you can see

          the new construction going up

is glass. The electric cars


These are moments of perceptive clarity through the complication, “like flares that bend / Across the lake in total dark.” There is no pretense here of a complete break from poetic tradition (“Haven’t we tried that before?” he writes). Lerner is able to carry this lyric beauty into the verse without any ethical compromise. Still, he is suspicious of lyric ease and the egotism it can endorse, lying as it does at the heart of our culture’s deepest flaws: “Neither do I. The irrelevant I. The I of all”. The ego is at once irrelevant and omnipresent, a contradiction that exists for Americans in the roots of our shared society.

With enviable precision, Lerner captures aspects of our modern society in just a few words or phrases. He writes of “an astounding irrelevance structured like language;” that “all work now / is late work;” he writes:

Wait, I didn’t want this to turn

Into a major novel. I want this to be

Composed entirely of edges [. . .]

These are sharp, evocative reductions of our era that move like clouds casting shadows on the plain. There is all the dread of apocalyptic fetishes, of nearing the end of time, of losing one’s good intentions to the ease of common pleasures. They’re motifs and buzzwords that are recycled and revised throughout the sequence, sometimes several times in the space of a few pages, to offer new depth and startling insights in their changing contexts.

A meta-narrative of personal loss also seems to underpin Lerner’s tangle of language play, not exactly as narrative but as a gentle color — blue-white versus red-white, observable in the contrast. The book is dedicated, “For Ariana. / For Ari.” It’s never clear whether some line that might be a narrative signpost is actually a mirage — “Ari, pick up. I’m a different person” — but there is definite emotion in the language, in the structure itself. The Doppler Effect, the shifting sound as an object passes without making contact, is an intriguing metaphor for the experience of loss, and Lerner explores this idea in the two sections of “Doppler Elegies,” where he is able to present / produce an elegaic experience in disjunctive language proper to the age:

quickly, over many years

          Forces are withdrawn

bundled and resold, the words

I distanced myself from

conventional forms, but now

Who am I to say

          at the midpoint of dissolve

I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening

          in prose

the weather broke

          When they called

Against the glass, it writes itself

Illuminated prompts

make ordering easy, the way

It’s supposed to be a picture of

          flying east, we lost a day

Blank verse returned

          in his later work

To untrained eyes

          it looks like me

Dispersed across regimes, the cost

expressed in human terms

Your machine picked up

the little delays, my intention was


music from a passing car

          for Ari

As it so often does in this book, the last lines here revise the rest of the piece, even implicating the rest of the sequence. In this poem we also find a metonymy of the book: rhetoric from various realms — political, interpersonal, commercial — structured in woven and broken syntax, with enough coherence to produce a tangible effect, and at the core a half-hidden, human experience. The reader shifts between reading through the words, into their meaning, and reading across the surface of the language as a material. One could roll out the numerous influences Lerner seems to wear, but it is more accurate to say that he has subsumed many classic lyric and late postmodern techniques into a unique poetry: “I don’t deny the influence, but it’s less / A relation of father to son than a relation of / Moon to tide.”

There are aspects of Lerner’s verse that will certainly fail some readers. His is a dense and cryptic poetics, one that requires careful attention over the course of the book and offers little closure in return. Most of the poems in these sequences end on broken phrases. The meanings remain inexact, revising and revising throughout: “focusing surfaces charged / Changed in the familiar ways. Little contrasts / With the task of total re-description.” The motifs of the book can be somewhat over-familiar in their tone of ethical American indignity, even when ironic: “As brand names drift toward the generic / We drift toward fascism;” or, “When an audience / Takes a bow, that’s fascism.”

Still, Mean Free Path is a monumental accomplishment. Lerner has wrenched out of trademark postmodern techniques a poem sequence that is evocative, melancholy, and humane — that last trait redeeming so much that might otherwise feel coldly intellectual or haughty. As with Angle of Yaw, the program here is not a new one, but it is executed to perfection; and, in its high quality, the poems feel as if they break new ground. In the second section of “Mean Free Path,” Lerner writes:

I did not walk here all the way from prose

To make corrections in red pencil

I came here tonight to open you up

To interference heard as music

This is not a mere treatise on language ethics. The object never hits you. The poetry, over and over, in its meaning and syntax, defers and delays. But it is worth each and every ponderous moment spent wrapped in the knotted lines of Lerner’s verse: “I finished the reading and looked up / Changed in the familiar ways.”

Daniel E. Pritchard is the founder and managing editor of The Critical Flame

in this article

Mean Free Path
by Ben Lerner
Softcover, $16.00
Copper Canyon Press