Mean Free Path
Copper Canyon Press, 2010
To read Ben Lerner’s Mean Free Path is to know a bit of what Heisenberg felt while trying to get a handle on those elusive particles. These poems refuse to be measured, to be pinned to subject or stance or resolution. Like a scientist, the reader is forever catching up, apprehending the poems not directly, but in echoes and half-forgotten repetitions, collecting not the matter itself but the residue of its reactions.
The laws of physics, in fact, delineate the contours of this book’s universe. Lerner’s title takes its name from the average distance a particle travels between collisions with other particles—an evocative metaphor for human relationships. These are love poems, as simultaneously self-aware and bewildered as “Prufrock'” or the “The Waste Land”, made even more devastating by their speaker’s—and physics’s—repeated failure to describe and so contain the changeability of another’s heart. But the speaker knows that this uncertainty is also crucial to the most artful forms of life, creativity, and discovery. In one of the two “Doppler Elegies” (long, fragmented poems which alternate with two “Mean Free Path” sections), Lerner splices sentences to arrive at a poem that does indeed sound as if it were in motion:
Somewhere in this book I broke
There is a passage
with a friend. I regret it now
lifted verbatim from
Then began again, my focus on
moving the lips, failures in
The fuselage glows red against
Uncertainty does not imply chaos, however. Lerner’s poems are formally rigorous, containing within their internal laws the syntactic and emotional precariousness that characterized language’s own Big Bang. Just as matter and energy change in reaction with each other, so, too, do poetical form and subject: “Waiting is the answer / I was looking for. Any subject will do / So long as it recedes.”
As love recedes and amplifies, so does the speaker’s linguistic and philosophical distress: “Maybe if you let / The false starts stand, stand in for symbols / Near collapse, or let collapsing symbolize / The little clearing loving is.” Any redemption achieved in these poems is immediately reincorporated into the whole system, where change is constant and unpredictable.
The physical world is not immune to stuttering, nor to the music that can result. Like music, which is in some sense physics given voice, the poems in Mean Free Path loop around themselves, repeating phrases and words across caesuras, variously affirming and negating their statements. Aestheticism, too, enters into the poems just as the speaker’s world seems to stabilize:
I decided I would come right out and say it
Into a hollow enclosure producing the
The aural illusion that we are in a canyon
I had planned a work of total outrage
Changing phase upon reflection
Until a wave of jasmine interfered
Although a song can be “sung” in a series of equations or the colour of a sunset can be “drawn” on a graph, there are some reactions—love, death, art, beauty—that cannot be translated into another set of symbols. The speaker of these poems must continually confront the limits of knowledge and even the limits of feeling:
I admire the use of felt
Theory, like swimming in a storm, but object
To antirepresentational bias in an era of
You’re not listening. I’m sorry. I was thinking
How the beauty of your singing reinscribes
The hope whose death it announces.
The best we can do as limited human beings, then, is to use what little brainpower and great love of beauty, art, knowledge, and feeling we have to approach the mysteries of life with whatever precision we can, and when precision fails, to accept abstraction as a kind of precision. Entropy, decay, death: the beauty of these inscrutable processes lies in that intersection of speed and position that we will never discern. Lerner writes,
The death of a friend
Opens me up. Suddenly the weather
Is written by Tolstoy, whose hands were giant
Resonant waves […] My past becomes
Of lines extending to each leaf
Citable in all its moments: parting, rain.
As soon as the speaker accepts the volatility of self and world, language fails to provide him with the specificity to describe it.
Fortunately, the best science is done with a love for the process without a focus on the result. For Lerner, the process of unfolding, or of acting and reacting, is the poem and its meaning—the “result” is as meaningless as contextless data. Lerner understands that the search for meaning, however well-intentioned, can disrupt the delicate balance between precision and mystery that describes the world: “It hurts me when you listen too closely / Smothering reference. Carefully decanted / Left to breathe. That’s criticism.” The ultimate—and inevitable—failure of the human attempt to measure, plot, and control the world can make great art. But that does not mean it is made without pain:
There must be an easier way to do this
I mean without writing, without echoes
[…] There must be a way to speak
At a canted angle of enabling failures
The little collisions, the path of decay.
Rachel Abramowitz  is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Christ Church, Oxford. She is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.