If in Time, the title of Ann Lauterbach's selected poems, underlines
the importance of the contingent in her ever exploratory poetics. If
an individual (or poem) exists "in time," is it futile to pursue necessary
or enduring truths? Even if one arrives at a scene "in time" to record
one's fleeting perceptions, how can the perceiver contend with the belatedness
of noting? If a song or poem is keeping "time," how does music transform
meaning? If "in time" suggests the French intime, then how is
intimacy affected by temporal flux and by the inevitability of death?
Like John Ashbery, to whom (along with Barbara Guest and Kenward Elmslie)
she has dedicated this volume, Lauterbach vigorously distrusts general
answers to grand questions. All is "Subject to Change," declares the
title of a poem from the second of her five collections, Before Recollection
(1987), and narrative itself erects false epistemic boundaries: "Often
I have thought the linear / duplicitous, mapping outer and inner, /
showing us core and enclosure / as it helps itself over destiny's rail."
One of Lauterbach's boldest experimental forays, the ten-page "Prom
in Toledo Night" (from Clamor, her 1991 collection) refuses the
linear development of dialogue. In alternating couplets and single-line
stanzas, perpetual interruption and postponement of meaning are the
norm and the completion of successive thoughts the rare exception: "This
habit of one thing leading to another // airless, so that she, in it,
felt / breathless, reckless, faithless // painted a virulent green,
seemed // As I sleep, an unnatural extremity prevails. / I am entrusted
to a stranger, harnessed[.]" Frequently, two fragmentary parts of one
sentence seem to be distributed three or more lines from one another,
and sometimes, what would logically seem to be the sentence's first
part is presented second, and vice-versa. In some cases, different passages
could serve as the completion of an initial grouping of words or the
beginning that goes with an earlier end. Since fragmentation works in
myriad ways here, vertigo dooms attempts to assemble the puzzle; the
reader had best submit to a continual rebooting of the intimacy of communication:
"always a gash or wound in the ongoing // unraveled speaks for itself,
a mask./ I'll stop concluding that desire is // we want to keep, to
cure, to care for. The[.]"
As excerpted sections from the title poem of her fourth collection,
For Example (1994), testify, every perception and proposition
in Lauterbach's work enjoys its moment of intimate attention, only to
lose its shred of authority to other formulations, indefinitely sketched
possibilities, mysteries, or aporias. Each thesis is a sacrificial lamb,
and the reader is never quite "in time" to clutch a bit of cognitive
stability, forever playing catch up. Here is the beginning of "Stepping
Out," the first section of "For Example":
If everything tends to become real
The notion that "reality" undergoes continual expansion is immediately
problematized by the possible influence of judgments, torments, quantification,
and the presence of a hidden dream. Human subjectivity infects abstract
"reality." Fragmentary perceptions lose connections with one other, and
the dream of unification of such "shards" is a dim "maybe." While comparisons
and contrasts—a roof-walker's freedom to gaze at sky-writing becomes
a foil for another's imprisonment—might lend conceptual "formality"
to experience, Lauterbach reminds us that contexts, "loosed like a hem,"
are ever refigured and often expanded beyond recognition. "We step out
on" this "world" in that we move away from secure anchors into flux, into
an otherness onto which we are "grafted"; but we also betray our idealized
constructions of the world when complexities of "what isn't there," processes
that elude naming, assail us.
then whose trial has ended
on a scale of one to ten
in which there is a dream
on a floor
no one can see.
elicit the shard from its fervor
to display amnesia: one person in jail
another walking across a roof
where what is written on the sky
brings formality to the event, as when
we first ask, What is it? The world,
loosed like a hem, is
what we step out on
and are pulled along away from our doors
not so much appeased as grafted
onto the long dark pause.
Pointing, not seeing anything, not knowing
the name for what isn't there.
Poems tracking perception like Clamor's "Lakeview Diner" necessarily
begin in medias res; without discernible origins: "A chair, half-hidden
behind leaves; / a torso, emerging from pigment; / a girl, on the outskirts;
/ this is how all my beginnings are." While embracing the idea that
"memory is crooked, is interlude," Lauterbach does not interpret epistemological
indeterminacy and narrative incoherence as grounds for abiding despair;
instead, "natural elision is part of our booty. . . ." The juxtaposition
of fragments offers a contingent understanding that gives pleasure,
and sometimes "the agility of brief reverence." When, as Lauterbach
puts it in "Remorse of the Depicted," also from Clamor, "Collage
has made a chaos of my desk," such chaos affords an intensely vital
migration through vicissitudes of short- and long-term memory: "I'll
keep his face, her hands, your voice / observing the necessary between.
/ Words cling to other words / as we have seen, although even these
are / migratory and the forgotten shows through as correction." In the
movement of this collage-consciousness, accidental contiguity is often
pivotal: "Have I told you about my uncle, / my cousin, my mother seeing
a tall man on some steps / and deciding there and then on my life?"
Like Wallace Stevens, Ashbery, and the Language poets, Lauterbach frequently
questions the capacities of linguistic representation. "New Brooms,"
one of the nineteen new poems included in If in Time, utilizes
a simple but fertile structure of formal division to enact this interrogation:
Of representation (frame)
from one to another (use)
between the articulation (space)
of language (tree)
of clarity by means of (intent)
of humans (speech)
on the contrary (response)
with itself, in its own density (earth)
for it is not (image)
from the first to the second (wave)
seizes upon (law)
within the other (us)
without those of (tradition)
point by point (nature)
of or to (the same)
and so on into a possible good
so what is said
is at an angle
the waxed carnation's cribbed flounce
shade distinctly wound among new brooms
panache of the ever-tan September
нннннн over the floor from which the soliloquy
as if restitution
be a chant surrounding disaster.
Usually, "new brooms" suggest the elimination of inaccuracy as prelude
to clarity and truth. Here, the "new broom" of syntactical anomalies
sweeps away "clarity" of "representation," the orderly movement "from
one" grammatical form "to another." The directional force of an "argument"
in the chain of prepositional phrases followed by nouns in parenthetical
apposition is derailed by a conjunction heading an independent clause
("and so on into a possible good") and later a verb form that does not
fit the clause's prior development. For four lines, objects of prepositions
and the parenthesized nouns seem related as synonyms, metaphors, or
metonymies. However, in the fifth line, a preposition, not a noun, stands
next to the noun in parentheses, as though the concept of "(intent)"
must be severely qualified. On the other hand, "by means of" may be
considered to act as a unit of language equivalent to the noun "intent."
Six lines later, in another divergence from the appositive constructions,
"seizes upon" can be associated with "(law)" because it is an action
justifiable by legal precedent. Of course, readers can "feel" these
disruptions of grammar and syntax without having to name them. The "possible
good" evoked in these lines involves the multiplicity of "frame," "use,"
"intention," et al and the resistance to rigidly univocal "representation."
Like Guest, and unlike Ashbery, Lauterbach frequently foregrounds a
concern with the subjectivity of women in poetry. "As It Turns Out"
(from her first collection, 1979's Many Times, But Then) imagines
the young Desdemona "in her torn skirt" finding that "this is a slipshod
universe" and suffering from a "heart" that "is permanently overcast."
Desdemona, we learn, "will need to wear a coat until a new age"—a
post-patriarchal era?—"dawns." In the elegant, compact lyric,
"Naming the House" (from Before Recollection,) Lauterbach envisions
a feminist reinterpretation and reclamation of middle-class domesticity.
When "women, toward evening," perceive how "the buoyant dim slowly depletes
/ terrain, and frees the illuminated house" for their own purposes,
they "begin to move about, reaching for potholders / and lids, while
all the while noting / that the metaphor of the house is [theirs] to
keep[.]" Lauterbach seems to value female "curiosity, a form of anticipation,
/ knowing the failure of things to null and knowing, too, / the joy
of naming it this, and this is mine." If "naming the house" sparks a
"joy" of possession and triumph against "things" "nulling," such mastery
hardly defies women's subordination, but Lauterbach purveys so many
subtle ironies that this may be yet another.
The much more recent poem "On (Word)" from Lauterbach's previous
collection, On a Stair (1996), appears intent on tying the instability
of language to the potential instability of gendered identity:
She does or does not love him.
He did or did not commit a crime.
The hairy-armed man is dressed
in the flowered frock of his second-grade teacher—
A Mrs. Flood from Columbus. He carries
a large shiny handbag, a gun, a camera
to record their vacation on the east coast.
He is or is not a woman.
Words turn on the mischief of their telling.
This little narrative is full of "mischievous" words that "turn" or
trope on the man/woman ambiguity. Interpretation of the A or B structure
in the first line cited above hinges on the presence/absence of love
in the "she" or on whether or not it applies to "him," and may or may
not apply to "He" in the second line. The "flood" of cultural images
that delimit gender performance teach much more than the appearance
of one "teacher" from a city recalling an earlier explorer of new territory.
Is the "crime" the use of an actual firearm, or possession of a gun-like
phallus within "the flowered frock"? Even the possessive pronoun "their"
promotes uncertainty, as does "turn on." Is the "mischief" produced
by words themselves or by duplicities of human tellers? Do "words" depend
on, abuse, or (almost sexually) excite this chicanery?
In showcasing Ann Lauterbach's poetic development over a quarter century,
If in Time manifests that she has broken free of the dependence
on Ashbery's sensibility suggested by the early work of the seventies
and some of the middle work of the eighties. Since then, she has been
in dialogue with the Language poets, the New York School, and feminist
experimentalists, and Lauterbach has found new forms for expressing
the continuousness of change: its ways of summoning and disrupting intimacy,
of evoking and subverting the position of women in culture, of evoking
a "collage" of fragmentary perceptions and the framing and decentering
play of language itself.<