Mean Free Path by Ben Lerner (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2010)
Salvage by Kristy Bowen (New York: Black Lawrence Press, 2016)
What Weaponry by Elizabeth J. Colen (New York: Black Lawrence Press, 2016)
I was initially resistant to Ben Lerner’s Mean Free Path. After all, he does warn the reader that there is “[n]othing for you here but repetition.” The unvaried line-lengths of these poems, and the seemingly constrained vocabulary of imagery, could easily appear as mere remnants of a failure of the imagination. Yet we tend to forget that any transformation begins with reiteration, as the phrase we recall is said and unsaid, memorialized and unmade at the same time.
With that in mind, Lerner reminds his reader that there is no such thing as “sameness” when considering an encounter with the poetic image. As his speaker moves through time, and as he is changed by its articulation of history, he discovers each “star,” each “identical city” with a different mind and heart. Lerner helps us see repetition as undeniable difference, as the “applause,” and the “sedimented roar,” are revisited on an individual who has fundamentally metamorphosed. We are made to hear his “voice” as both old and new, in much the same way that we are shown oneself as another.
Two other recent collections, Kristy Bowen’s Salvage and Elizabeth J. Colen’s What Weaponry offer startling variations on this framing of repetition as subtle transformation. In Bowen’s gorgeously cinematic presentation of the poetic image, each “house made of mothers,” each “house destroyed” functions as a projection, a portrait of a self that remains in a constant state of flux. We are shown ongoingness and becoming frame by frame, the poems functioning as stills of a heroine on screen, who never ceases moving. Similarly, Colen’s recurrent imagistic motifs make provocative ontological claims. She calls our attention the ways that repetition is often a process of estrangement, as each iteration of the same image bears us further and further afield.
Taken together, these three books raise what is essentially a question of limitation and possibility: How much transfiguration can the same mind, and the same finite world, sustain?
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In Mean Free Path, Lerner builds a “dark aisle” just to see how much “plain language” can fit within it without the door coming “unhinged.” Each poem’s construction represents both minimalistic restraint and egregious excess, as significance accumulates around every “disaster” revisited, every familiar and perilous “edge.”
This notion of repetition as precarious architecture, as accumulation, and as necessary destruction, is enacted on both small and large scales. On the level of the individual poem, we see many very different types of repetition holding vastly divergent lines together. Taking the first poem after the dedication as an example, one observes sound (such as the alliteration that binds “delays” to “sensations,” “audible” to “absence” and “rain”), as well as syntax (particularly the subject-verb-object construction that links clauses like “Waiting is the answer” and “Any subject will do”) and of course, recurrent imagistic motifs.
These subtle gestures within each poem serve to mitigate the wild associative leaps that occur, as there are often ontological and syntactic worlds between one line (for example, “The audible absence of rain”) and the next (meaning, the wildly divergent “Take the place of objects”). Repetition offers a way of closing gaps, but also, a way of transforming them, allowing each vast expanse bridged by “description” to become a “system,” a “standing wave,” enlivened by movement and slow, careful metamorphosis.
As these varied and various types of repetition intersect and overlap on the level of the larger sequence, their interlocking structure becomes metaphor, ultimately traversing the distance that is so elegantly described in these poems: “I’m writing this one/With my eyes closed, listening to the absence of…” Indeed, the imagistic motifs, syntactic structures, and alliterative gestures that recur throughout the sequence, and that bind one line to the next, begin to simulate proximity, despite the syntactic and metaphoric chasms that separate each line, each poem, each page.
In many ways, it is this tension between distance and proximity that allows Lerner’s framework to hold so many of the same “little contrasts” without becoming claustrophobic for the reader, as we are made to see each motif, each syntactic structure from different emotional and intellectual vantage points. As Lerner himself writes, “Nothing’s changed except the key.”
* * *
The most moving poems in Lerner’s book are those that address the absent other directly: “If you would speak of love/Stutter, like rain…” It is this unflinching lyricism that allows us to understand that desire motivates these elaborate accumulations, the careful architecture that takes shape over the course of the book.
For Lerner, the love lyric becomes voyage and transfiguration, a landscape that is slowly and irrevocably transformed, just as the speaker is changed–by time, history, and the relationship itself. Lerner writes:
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
Although the pronoun “you” is reiterated throughout these lines, we are presented with vastly different facets of the same love object: she is at turns secretive (as she “startles” the speaker), somnambulant (“I thought you were sleeping”), and finally disconnected, prompting both clarification and denial (“You called me”). Indeed, repetition subtly suggests that distance and proximity inhabit the same moments. With each reiteration of the word “glass,” we find ourselves at a greater remove, one step further from the desired narrative. The layers of “glass” multiply, concealing a version of the scene that is possibly more real and more true. Just as the speaker “likes looking/At anything under glass/Especially glass,” we see both characters refracted and distorted through repetition. Yet this distortion is revealed as the truest representation of the dynamic between them, the impossibility of empathy and connection, and the knowledge that one can never fully inhabit the mind or heart of another.
In many ways, the moments of indirectness within the collection allow us to see Lerner’s more direct pieces in sharper relief. When the glass reappears, as rubble (“axes to grind into glass”) and as threshold (“sliding doors,” “a poem through a windshield”) the speaker meets them alone.
* * *
Elizabeth J. Colen’s What Weaponry offers a provocative variation on Lerner’s envisioning of repetition as distance and proximity. For Colen, repetition is a process of making strange, bearing us farther and farther away from the familiar with each room revisited, each reiteration of the image we once thought we knew.
Much like Mean Free Path, What Weaponry utilizes many different types of repetition: parallel syntax, sound motifs, and of course, a vocabulary of imagery that imposes its own willful constraints. Here sound and syntax, however familiar they may become, only heighten the wonderful strangeness of Colen’s imagery. She writes in “Low Clouds,”
When we see it from above we will know the sea is near, as is the grey, as is the end. When we see it from above the plane will be circling, destroying low clouds. When we see it from above we will be listening, we will be watching, we will go there as fast as we can.
The quoted poem, the first in the collection, reads almost as ars poetica, instructing the reader how to approach the “circling” and recursive prose within the book. Here “the sea,” which appeared earlier in the poem as “wet sand between our toes,” has been rendered entirely other, functioning as a harbinger of destruction. Indeed, what makes “the sea” and the “low clouds” so disconcerting is the vantage point from which they are seen as the poem draws to a close: we slowly realize that we are falling. As the poem’s “concentric circles grow,” each return, each reiteration is also a step toward the poem’s unmaking. Though the “crabs” and “dry kelp” comprise a fairly consistent vocabulary of maritime imagery, the vantage point from which it is seen becomes less and less safe. In this respect, Colen’s work proves comparable to Lerner’s, as the same image is presented at varying degrees of remove. Repetition for both writers is a voyage, an orbit around a deceptively stable center of gravity.
* * *
What Weaponry is perhaps most powerful when this repetition becomes a kind of violence. Given the familiarity of the images and syntactic structures we encounter, this framing of the book’s “talking in circles” as aggression, as threat is all the more unexpected. In this respect, repetition is not only a source of structural unity within the book, but a form of resistance, a sly and subtle feminist practice.
Throughout What Weaponry, we are presented with “mornings [that] stab the breath right out of our lungs.” Yet the speaker of these poems is also implicated in this destruction, which she willfully and recklessly summons. The speaker’s fascination with violence (and its relationship to the physical body) is enacted beautifully in Colen’s presentation of fire. She writes, for example, in “The Perfect Kind of Happy,”
I hold your hand or I strike you or you strike me or light up a cigarette and our upstairs disappears. But what if we’re in it? I think of particles exploding, coming back together like some physics experiment I don’t know the name for. “Large Hadron Collider,” you say.
Here Colen conflates the act of smoking with interpersonal violence (“I strike you…”, “You strike me…”), suggesting that this kind of harm is also done slowly and unwittingly to oneself. At the same time, Colen subtly implies that aggression and conflict are built into the very “particles” that make us. For Colen, this “experiment” represents a necessary destruction, what may be conceived of as a generative kind of violence.
In many ways, the impact of this passage is heightened by repetition on a larger scale, as the small fire portrayed here (“lighting up a cigarette…”) only grows with each provocative prose piece. Within a few pages, we are presented with “campfire,” “an active volcano,” and finally, “a face lighting up.” The fire that Colen depicts in these passages becomes destruction and resistance, a threat to oneself and the other.
* * *
Salvage offers a provocative take on this framing of repetition as subtle violence, as necessary devastation. We are offered a vision of the self as inherently unstable, a self that is destroyed over and over again, only to emerge more luminous and more fierce. What’s more, Bowen shows us the speaker’s transfiguration frame by frame. This book-length sequence reads as deconstructed cinema, as a gorgeously fractured film reel.
Like Colen and Lerner, Bowen utilizes repetition not only as a source of unity and cohesion, but as metaphor, as ontological statement. Throughout Salvage, voice is borne out of the destruction of a self who is not yet past, singing towards a future that has not yet materialized. This Hegelian notion of transformation as destruction, and time as inevitable violence, is perhaps most visible in Bowen’s sequence, “dreams about houses and bees.” Here the reader is presented with infinite variations on the same image, a house that is at turns “four-chambered” and “falling,” that doubles as a “museum of unruly saints.” Bowen’s use of repetition here it twofold: we are offered a consistent vocabulary of domestic imagery, certainly, but each poem retains a subtle variation on what appears at first to be the same title, with its familiar syntactic construction: “House made of…. or “House which is…” Each “house which is a kind of falling,” and each “house of misused potential” functions as a projection, a rendering of the speaker’s emotional and psychic topography, which is inevitably externalized.
Bowen writes in “house made of ghosts and small animals,”
For every love song, there is a broken dove skeleton
rotting in the eaves. A leaving, that requires
nothing but the door opening and closing just once.
A heaviness of suitcases and floor lamps and
record albums piled awkwardly in the trunk.
The speaker’s interior drama, the “longing” and cruel “motives” that exist simultaneously, are enacted in the objects she chooses to populate the domestic space: “love songs” at odds with “broken dove skeletons,” the lightness music coupled with the “heaviness” of her personal affects. Here we are presented with a space marked by tension, the speaker’s desire for multiple and contradictory outcomes. In many ways, Bowen’s rendering of this domestic space is all the more startling, considering the poem immediately before, its rooms populated by “love letters” and “tiny glass kittens.”
As the reader wanders the halls of this “house of beautiful drownings,” we see a slow transformation of the speaker projected onto the space she inhabits. Through her seamless and artful repetition, Bowen calls our attention to the relationship between time and the rooms we traverse, as each “house of strays,” each “house of open wounds” documents a self that is already and irrevocably past. I find myself deeply moved by Bowen’s work when she acknowledges temporality as violence, as necessary destruction. In many ways, it its this repetition with a slight difference allows her entry to this ambitious philosophical question.
Salvage is aptly named, as Bowen gracefully and articulately gathers the fragments of each burned house, each broken window. Like Colen and Lerner, Bowen shows us that when we try to hold on to the things we have accumulated – “salt shakers, salad forks, tiny match books”- it’s really the space between our fingers that lets the light through.
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Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books of poetry, most recently DARK HORSE (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and multiple residencies at the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems and essays appear in The Gettysburg Review, Agni, New American Writing, The Iowa Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. Her work has also been featured on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog and the Academy of American Poets’ website, Poets.org. She is Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly and Grants Specialist at Black Ocean.