In physics, the “mean free path” of a particle is the average distance it travels before colliding with another particle. The poems in Ben Lerner’s third collection are full of discrete collisions—stutters, repetitions, fragmentations, recombinations—that track how language breaks up or changes course under the emotional pressures of the utterance. Failures of communication articulate what escapes description. Lines are often out of order or belong to several possible orders simultaneously, inviting the reader to collaborate with the poem. Both a book of love poems and a book about the difficult possibility of writing love poems within a commercialized and militarized language, Mean Free Path is at once Lerner’s most personal and most formally adventurous work.
“Lerner seems to have engineered a form that enacts a balance between the recuperative and the mournful, a kind of hobbling of thought and sentiment whereby he invites a phrase into the poem only to have enjambment cut off the engagement before it is fully expressed. Often the phrase will reverberate in later lines and stanzas, a kind of poetic afterlife or Doppler effect.” —Boston Review
“[Lerner’s new book] is sure to be among the best collections published in 2010. The world of Mean Free Path is fragmented and recursive… The poems are charged with the full force of Lerner’s monumental talent, which begins with the finely chiseled line and extends to the architecture of the book entire. Images and phrases suddenly break off, disappear, and then later resurface in new contexts, colliding with or collapsing into one another, recombining to make themselves and the whole world new again, albeit through a process that bears an uncanny (and unsettling) resemblance to endlessly flipping through TV channels in the deep ditch of insomniac night.” —Poetry Foundation
“In his third collection, [Ben Lerner] 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… Lerner keeps refining his techniques and remains a younger poet whose work deserves attention.” —Publishers Weekly
“Lerner maintains a continuity of voice that proposes a flexible integrity of being that is formed by, and exists through, interruption and collision. Gaps, stutters, and redirections do not interrupt us, they constitute what we are.” —Constant Critic
“Lerner seeks to deliver an experience of simultaneity, interruption and disjunction throughout [Mean Free Path].” —Fanzine