cover image Mean Free Path

Mean Free Path

Ben Lerner, . . Copper Canyon, $16 (69pp) ISBN 978-1-55659-314-7

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. (May)