“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 called me. 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-founded No: a journal of the arts, and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.
Lerner is both a favorite among young avant-garde poets and a recipient of more traditional honors his previous book was a finalist for the National Book Award. In his third collection, which is composed of two alternating sequences, he continues and deepens his exploration of how contemporary mass culture taints language, testing the border where words transition from expressing real feeling to being so overused they mean almost nothing. The nine-line stanzas of Mean Free Path utilize collage, found language, humor, and snippets of what seem like autobiography to question how much a poem can really say. I'm sorry, sorrier/ Than I can say on such a tiny phone. Stunningly prescient insights ( In total war, the front is continuous ) alternate with humorous asides and haunting admissions of the limits of interpersonal connection, noting the sudden suspicion the teeth/ In your mouth are not your own, let/ Alone the words. The page-long Doppler Elegies utilizes many of the same techniques in an attempt to construct a fragmentary love poem to Ari. Promising sentences are cut off at the line break, only to resume in the midst of another, entirely different thought, often creating pertinent juxtapositions, as in a poem that laments The life we've chosen/ from a drop-down menu. Lerner keeps refining his techniques and remains a younger poet whose work deserves attention.