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On a Stair
Ann Lauterbach
Penguin Poets, $14.95 (paper)

by Andrew Osborn

Ann Lauterbach's latest collection of poems, On a Stair, takes its title from Emerson. "Where do we find ourselves?" he asks at the beginning of "Experience," then answers:
In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.
Lauterbach likewise explores and seeks to express how the human "I," which is a sense of self, an array of points-of-view, establishes this sense of self--on what basis. Like Emerson, she is primarily concerned to locate this "I" on a vertical scale. Thus her epigraph from the contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben which addresses our relation to the inanimate: "[T]hings are not properly anywhere," he writes and she quotes; instead, "their place is . . . where we find ourselves suddenly facing these apparently simple unknowns: the human, the thing." Not a very illuminating statement on its own. But Lauterbach, no less devoted than Emerson to reconciling perception with intellect, forces such abstract ideas to exhibit their robust, worldly complexities.

An art critic as well as a poet, Lauterbach has frequently collaborated with visual artists. At the heart of On a Stair, her fifth solo work, is the twelve-part poem previously published with art by Ellen Phelan, "A Clown, Some Colors, A Doll, Her Stories, A Song, A Moonlit Cove." The first parts blend the existential attitudes of Wim Wender's film Wings of Desire, in which the angel Gabriel elects to fall into humanness, and Joseph McElroy's sci-fi novel PLUS, in which a disembodied mind relays its dawning consciousness as it orbits the earth. Clown, "from his seat on the shelf before Is," considers his leap of faith in the halting syntax to which he is as yet constrained: "Am I safe or for sale? / . . . / Will I fall will fly is there / a bridge or a sill?" When Doll takes over in part five, she reflects on Clown's absence and how change engenders temporality even while the present tense remains unopened, tense:

Fled, said Doll, eyeing
the shadow of a shoe.

What leaps? What falls?
Is noon cast off?

Not yet blooming as aftermath,
sequence stunned in a bud

a blush of erasures, of prints.
Someone, not me, was here

dreaming of day, as of
Elsewhere, in "Night Barrier," Lauterbach's lyric persona confesses, "I am deliberately / missing the events / by which time is told." Indeed, many of these poems are the verbal equivalent of strobe photography, each a cubist nude's-eye-view à la Duchamp.

Another sequence--"On (Tower)," "On (Word)," "On (Open)," "On (Thing)," "On (Dream)," and "On"--interrogates On a Stair's titular preposition, thereby continuing one of the previous book's projects. In And For Example (1994), Lauterbach sought to innervate the connective tissue of our grammar, to "say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but," and of other taken-for-granted words in our closed vocabulary, as William James had recommended. With these six short takes she also follows up on that book's interest in accreted instances, playing language games so as to feel the difference between Being (Gk. on) and various species of being-on (aboutness, support, endurance, and so on). "Are we mere vocabularies?" she asks in the second. "Words turn on the mischief of their telling," she ambiguously concludes. Then, in the poem immediately following, she lets the words, the vocabularies, speak mischievously for themselves. More impressionistic than "On (Word)," "On (Open)" defers its declaratives to the end:

Sheaf or sheet or sheer (hearing
a turn closer than
an island, proportion of mind
as a circle (sorrow comes round
voracious and pungent
girl meets boy the waiting emblem
geography's spirit (too close to count)
and a hint of mercy in the weeds, the goodly weeds,
the wand of the keeper
(circus in town, hand of a stranger)
weighted tents open to all.
Nothing is optional. Nothing closed.
I include "On (Open)" in its entirety to show how disjoint (or merely jointed) Lauterbach's poetry can be. If Ashbery, to whom she is often compared, bears an avuncular relation to Language poetry, then Lauterbach is a kissing cousin. Even the loose thematic clustering and segues that make a review readily readable may belie On a Stair's unwieldiness. Excerpting and paraphrasing Lauterbach's work involves the elision of alternate possibilities she'd like to keep available, open. The unsettling effect of her fill-every-or-with-rift aesthetic only escalates in the longer, less narrative poems. Though several parts of "A Clown . . ." consist solely of titles over blankness, multi-page poems predominate, and in many of these Lauterbach fans her phrases so broadly and erratically that to try to represent them in this review's narrow columns would be pointless. Suffice it to say that she evidently wants us to experience her work form-first, to sense its shapes before shaping a sense.

Even with the words before one, calling to mind a corresponding image can be difficult. I've come to believe that Lauterbach's frequent lack of visual coherence must be not only tolerated but heeded. What she calls "the meaning of / the presence of meaning" need have little to do with visual clarity; often, our perception of this presence is instead haptic ("not a matter of seeing, / [but] a matter of touch. Homer, for example, / finding his way down the staircase"). It may also be auditory. Shortly before Clamor came out in 1992, Lauterbach said that for her "the self is construed across the entire surface of the poem; the place of the poem is the track of its hearing." In "Nocturnal Reel," one of my favorites in this new book, she implies that to be true to the self's strewed multiplicity, we must not objectify or fetishize things by fixing them in our sights. When, in the midst of reeling syntax and meandering indentations, she writes, "lilac ash / broken urn / summoned from the truant by the guide / back on track," I feel the guide's summons but do not feel the track, can't track this poem's "hearing," until she returns to the left margin for a moment's reflection:

In such streaks of riot
she forgets the object
to wander to create a vacancy to forget
and drops a stitch.
This italicized line names Lauterbach's paradoxical aim throughout the collection and accurately locates her lyric impulse between the internalized quest romance of Jorie Graham's errancies and Ashbery's romantic project of teasing himself out of thought. Each poet aims to break and break away from the predestined, iconic, memorial and mnemonic urn-poem in all three ways-by wandering, by creating vacancies, by forgetting--but the greatest of these for Lauterbach is the second.

"N/est," a poem about physically and psychically felt vacancies, is one of the few poems here which answer to being read aloud. Lauterbach uses the backslash in this and other poems to mark an interlineal break or a pause or an option or simultaneity. In this title, the backslash allows her to combine the senses of the uterine "nest" and the French "n'est" (isn't) and perhaps also a negation of Eostre, the fertility goddess from whose name "Easter" derives. As a confessional narrative, the poem conspicuously departs from Lauterbach's usual reticence; other poems refer to a "she" in the third person and treat "I" as the name of a character ("I / shifts tableaux, her / eyes close . . ."). In "N/est," Lauterbach discards that mask and dwells first-person upon memories of childhood, her father's frequent absences throughout it, her relationships with other people's children, her not having children of her own, and the three abortions she had instead. It is here that she quotes the opening sentences of "Experience," the essay in which Emerson came to terms, if not in touch, with his grief over the death of his son Waldo. Lauterbach grieves without regretting her own "childlessness," a condition she claims "brings estrangement" and which, she implies, allowed her to pursue a creative writing career:

These steps I took
I do not regret

                                     to be a poet

they were illegal dangerous
sad and expensive

"N/est" ends with the memory of a young rufous sparrow and the image of its becoming full-fledged by flying off:
later it disappeared

in the photograph a blur on a bough of blue space
the nest a palm of dry mud on the ground.
Earlier in the collection, Lauterbach associates such an image with confession, which, she writes, "drags biography into view like a saint briefly captured / in a photograph," her smile blurred. These two descriptions represent what I like most and least in On a Stair. On the one hand, I admire Lauterbach's ongoing commitment to exploring the meaning of absence, interstice, and what Wittgenstein calls the "significant blur for which there is a reason." In both descriptions, the apparent distortion is actually truer, more telling, than a clear image could be. The "blurred image of [the saint's] smile" marks it as genuine: transient, not posed. The sparrow-blur in "N/est" depicts the very ineffability of transcendence and thus achieves Emerson's definition of spiritual: "that which is its own evidence." And Lauterbach is no less true in that parting image to the contrastive, inanimate, fallen thing--securely grounded if only because abandoned. On the other hand, she sometimes forgets her vow not to strategize and actively undermines what would otherwise stand. The adverb "briefly" betrays her zeal. Must she deny photography's practical fixity? If the saint got captured at all, it got captured for good. I feel similarly uneasy about the prestige she accords questioning. To register, without arresting, the spirit of curiosity is a common, worthy aim of the lyric poet, but much is lost when one treats all questions as equivalent or makes little effort to answer them. In "Poem of the Landscape," Lauterbach states that "Her function, the purpose of / her journey, is to / ask any question, What is the grass? Have you seen / my socks?" Placing the fecund, eminently public question of Whitman's child on a par with personal fact-checking inquiry reveals the dysfunction of this particular journey. Fortunately, Lauterbach is a good deal larger than this "her"; she contains multitudes.
Toward the end of "Experience," Emerson writes: "Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy. Its chief good is for well-mixed people who can enjoy what they find, without question. . . . We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them." Having begun where he began, Lauterbach has evidently moved in the opposite direction. For life, as she represents it, is far from sturdy; indeed, it elicits incisive questioning, demands the critical intellect. Reading these poems, I am reminded most of Milton's Satan when, perched on the edge of Chaos, he spies a Jacob's-ladder-like structure ascending from Earth:
Each Stair mysteriously was meant, nor stood
There always, but drawn up to Heav'n sometimes
Viewless . . . .
                                     (Paradise Lost, III.516-18)
It is on such a stair that Ann Lauterbach's latest collection is founded, founders, and seeks to find itself. Were we more like angels and less like the various puppets who populate this book, we might move upward and downward on her mysteriously meant poems at our leisure. We might skate on their surfaces. Instead, we must feel our way through them as we feel our way through our precarious, inexhaustably various lives.

Originally published in the December 1998/January 1999 issue of Boston Review

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