As Reviewed By: James Rother
Chaos Verbalized & Loopy Mayhem
Hum by Ann Lauterbach. Penguin Poets Series, 2005. 103 pp.
The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience by Ann Lauterbach. Viking, 2005. 255 pp.
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There’s a catbird seat overlooking the feline wilderness of contemporary American poetry from which it is possible, if one is so inclined, to chirp contentedly about this being if not an age of Lauterbach, then of “sound poetry” technicians of the profane that look in print and sound very much like our Ann. The consequences of this, one feels obliged to note, are not always felicitous. The residua of any deflationary epoch, when Bloom-driven and serene atop its Objectivist/Projectivist wave like the present one, blend in memory when around this long with innumerable Brie-and-Chablis parties at which shards of Stevensian wit from “Esthétique du Mal” or “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” sliced the air like tracer bullets. Alas, anecdotes from that gone world just do not jar as they once did. Having traipsed too often to the well with the same pitcher, they’ve taken on the pallor (here citing the master) of “poor phantoms, without place / Like silver in the sheathing of the sight, /As the eye closes.” Put with rather more brusqueness, something in the stomach sinks when old tannin is marketed as new wine without the slightest alteration of the bottle the stuff comes in.
In Hum, Ann Lauterbach’s latest collection (her If in Time: Selected Poems 1975-2000 hit the review columns five years ago), the indeterminate waftings that puff the sails of pieces like “Event Horizon“ come not just from Stevens’s undersea menagerie but from the wind tunnel we learned to associate with Eliot as well:
Clandestine erasures fortify our trivia, so this sheen, this look,
floats over rhetoric, beckoning small retrievals
which we might paste yet another history. . .
Lauterbach seems not to care which literary ghosts her lines revive or what climates of eclecticism her poems evoke. Her key stroke—though “bookmark” might be a more accurate term—is the Ashberian romp through the floppy discs of the mind’s freest associations, or what Jahan Ramazani calls a “strange objectification of subjectivity, often disguising, abstracting, or fragmenting the autobiographical subject. “ In fact, it’s very hard when immersed Lauterbachiana not to feel one’s sinuses being strongly assaulted by attar of precursors—a sort of Waste Land effect (sans Fisher King and Chapel Perilous) by which the reader is assailed by many voices, none of them the poet’s own and each committed to making the contingent appear unalterable by anything said or done. Single poems, divided into unequal parts and and equally disjunctive concisions, spurn clear apothegms of circumstance for the muddiest of pseudo-philosophic importunities with unflagging inner targeting.
One notable example of intelligibility seeming to be souffléed but being shifted into a more distant but still accessible register is the unsprawling (for Lauterbach), four-part revisitation of Olsonian totems in “Stones (The Coast of Turkey; Robert Smithson).” As not infrequently her wont, Lauterbach sets out on a barque of suggestive dither:
Forget that version, gist’s
truncated eruption, stone
placating heat, avenue luminous but forbidden
up the steep assault. She of glittering rings, of the swollen
intricacy of faith, sinks into dust, frees an icon from its
distillation—unction of tears, waxy scent
of a common nave. Out there, things ride their riddles
like toys in space, an agenda gap on the
but we soon realize that the poet’s usual method of metonymically courting madness has been curtailed in the service of demonstrating, also in Olson-like style, how ritual observance (in this case an al fresco Turkish wedding) can draw everything around it into a vortex of redemptive integration. Her preferred entrée for psyching out this process is to let the impressions of the event find their own “image-repertoire” of appropriation. That way what is admitted to memory within the administrative present will not conflict with the congeries of attitude the poet must summon later, and the scena thus evoked can maintain its purity as a happening magically happened upon at a corner of eternity turned, like a page in some book of Vedas or koans, in the poet’s mind, making the wedding celebrants come alive before her much as the figures on the Grecian urn did for Keats:
Now a veil
is thrown clear across the disturbance
across the domestic stage
to the circle’s wet edge.
I can see through this, and this, I can see
the dispersal as if it were tomorrow, hinge of arrival opening—
how it goes, adage after adage, through the sanctuary,
the nave’s arcade,
dipped pigment and last trace
trespassing over a bridge onto a continent, the increments
bewildered by detail—
searching the site,
mouth, thumb, foot,
stone angled across the processional
where they climb to stare, the him and the her,
black goats bleating from the cloister
passing something on.
Single plaintive note, little redundancy. .
What follows is a somewhat tendentious disquisition (in italics) on surfaces and their modern fate to be consequences of “. . . extensions of the Cartesian mind . . . carried to the most / attenuated points of no return,” which is itself succeeded by a series of bivalve couplets recalling the “The river sweats / Oil and tar” segment from The Waste Land’s Part III. The point of these last (if somewhat over-pointillistically driven home) is not difficult to discern: it is to hold forth on what the scene itself must of necessity hold itself back from, which is the matter-of-fact admission of how foreign such proceedings must seem to anyone touched by the wand of modern Cartesian consciousness with all its dissolving vistas of a phantasmal self. The banter of the wedding party’s trinkets coupled with the lusting after lifelessness of the faith being affirmed (rich even for the blood of emirs, sheiks and shahs who invoked Descartes in consigning the caliphate to its doom) lifts an ancient rigor out of time and plants it harsh and flat-footed into mind:
etched in a mirror
sleep extends its tale
deprived of solace
the dream’s epithet
profits us not
and her hair
measured for afterlife
the Sultan’s concubine
in a cage
This is followed by an epiphany of sorts, unbidden as epiphanies always are, but appearing, as if on cue, to seal the compact of finalities enacted in the ceremony described—
I saw a young boy in a row boat but he did not see me.
Chaste catastrophe of a broken mast
men holed up in the mountains
to travel lightly as snow
---leading to the discovery (also registered in italics) that “We can make things look natural, but that doesn’t mean they are.” Still, one finds oneself wondering, Where might all this be going? Ships have left port but the cargo manifests indicating what they were laden with or where they were headed are nowhere to be consulted, though answers to these and other questions are not long in coming as “Event Horizon” careens towards its cocoon-dissolving money shot just over the page:
We had told the story of
restoration, pasted the leaf on the tree.
A belated significance forecasts
its currency, as if among figments
we might enter the glare where history collapsed,
catalyst dispersed as the unremembered,
one ruin much like another, one choice
for a better tomorrow: mass appeal, filling station, chorale.
And the hostage figure—transference and mechanism
caught by intention’s blind noise, site
newly intimate—claims its form.
If spiritual twins existed in life as well as in lore, Lauterbach would doubtless find hers in Joan Didion—lacking of course that author’s venom-inducing dry-mouth style, a habitude of writers challenged by the affliction of an over-agenbite and inwit to match. But there are differences too that seem no less obvious. Didion, a gnarly and gnomic punter of Dies Irae’s and Confutatis Maledictis-es, is still an artisan in prose, and so her essays in obliquity and arabesques on elliptical moral themes also resonate, Swift-like, in choir lofts of understanding where normalized extremity can but limp along respectably, as though in a recuperation ward for invalid existentialists. Lauterbach, a poet as much by act of congress as by any connative predilection, makes her “night sky” (her titular logo for “writings on the poetics of experience”) a darkness visible by leaving many utterances to their own devices when integralizing connectivities are called for. Again and again, they are left to hang, wispy and cirrus-like, from dioramas woven from gossamer tidbits of her own blues. Her rationale for such appears in “The Night Sky III,” couched in a cover-all apologia for things flighty and indeterminate best quoted at length:
. . . Lateral, permuting, reiterative surfaces are evident differently, in the work of Gertrude Stein and John Cage, in the paintings of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol and, to some degree, of Willem de Kooning, in the works of more contemporary artists such as Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Carl Andre, Brice Marden, Donald Judd, and, more recently still, Ann Hamilton . . . ; in composers such as Steve Reich, John Adams, and Terry Riley. In each case the distinction between figure and ground is muted; the “figure” is extended over an entire field in a sequence of unique but similar marks/gestures or placements: a rhythm of contingency; or else is rearranged to emphasize scale and relation, as in the work of Philip Guston and Elizabeth Murray. The relation of part to part, rather than part to whole, the internal syntax, is the point of interest; the construction of the work revealed, on its surface, is, in some sense, the content of the work. There is perhaps in our initial iconography a contracting conjugation space / place / locale / local, a peculiar span from abstract to particular (“radiant details”) which privileges neither. The system of relations is spatial rather than temporal—it resists the implied narrativity of figure/ground and promotes instead an uninflected parameter which incidents (proximities) occur. Both Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, in entirely different ways, announce a poetics of (American) space: Whitman by his insistence on a Self as Representative and Inclusive (a specific instance or example, an incident, one among many, leaf among leaves), and Dickinson by releasing narrative into prismatic structures, so her poems do not so much move forward in time (tell stories) as turn in space: they are aspectual rather than perspectival: mobiles, constellations.
in many of these works is neither secular nor sacred, the landscape neither
urban nor rural, domestic nor wild. It is the space in which a body might be
found telling. Perhaps the language-game of telling is a game played on a
board, a field. What are the rules? Who makes them? Who moves first?
Baseball? Chess, anyone?
And just when it was looking as though Theory was finally dead. Clearly, if hope lingered on anywhere that Lauterbach had somehow altered course since the bad old days leading up to If in Time, the above recyclical should retire it for good. Though laudable qualities glimmer, if not abound, in her work viewed broadly, ignoring the hanging chads making her final resting place in the pantheon at best a questionable call remains difficult to say the least. To start with, there is the no small matter of her quarter-century-long group-hug of Cage-ites in just about every genre and artistic medium.
Still, though it might be tempting from some vantage overlooking the drop zone between objective and critical judgment to sneer this poet away with a “Once a Caged bird, always a Caged bird,” one has to admit that, unlike many rattling around that scatterbrained cénacle, Lauterbach has, sometimes miraculously, sometimes just by dint of micro-managerial skills, made hay while other poets’ suns, some brighter than hers, were shining. Hers is not just another face the adversative Conjunctions crowd put on in pursuit of a James Laughlin-like stable of “greats.” And yes, it can be said that she has appeared as mistress of ceremonies at a few too many hommages to such entropy merchants as Joe Brainard and Ted Berrigan. But to claim that all she has done since Many Times, But Then is fashion from no longer rearrangeable deck chairs a new Titanic would strike anyone but an Allen Tate diehard as wantonly libelous.
As much as Lauterbach’s poems stretching back as far as 1979 might hint at the glib postmodernist meltdown their own demeanor seems to invite, pieces like “The Relinquished,” while intimating that its prim aesthetic cool is somehow reliant upon heavy muzzling of chutzpah and arch supports, and “After All” (from roughly the same period) which, in aiming at a level of competency Eliot attained in his early “Preludes,” manages only a scaled-down tattering of those poems’ dog-eared aperçus already programmed in by their author, function as stalking horses for a run-up in angst control that shows up only in much later work. To harp even further on this note, a good deal of Lauterbach’s recent verse strikes one as considerably more centered (if not more centrist)— which is to say less obviously impaired by her usual parabolics. Nonetheless, there still persists the tendency, which has been present from the inception in her case, toward uncontrolled ellipsis, the dottiness of which seems oddly coincident with how many stitches are dropped in that morganatic weave of fatae whose fabric of determinants seem so loosely knit together in much of her work.
An example or two from Hum might make this absence seem more present. In the third part of “To & So” container and contained are as remote from one another as ever they were shown to be in a deconstruction of Proust by Paul de Man:
Unjust equation night is night
closes on a simple thing
recurrent in the kneeling air
collapse of particulars say leaf say drip
what is required is attached at the outer rim
we in our love
because the frame extends only so far
then around a corner then descent
gradual glide into viscous air. . . .
Is the air “kneeling” (impossible image!) because of unjust equations making night unrecallably night, or is the general “collapse of particulars” referred to responsible retroactively for the atmospheric genuflection? Also, try as one might, one cannot imagine a single “simple thing” that kneeling air would cause to be “recurrent,” unless it be a phalanx of airy knees falling to the ground. But can air both kneel and be, as is stipulated seven lines on, “viscous”? For that matter, can anything be viscous and kneel?
Things becomes no less opaque as this segment of “To & So” expands centrifugally into its own depopulated logosphere:
Up again? Is this another never,
another cell, another impossible procedure, another
X, another unsayable,
thread lifted from a wall
steel arc leaning in the public arena
huge installation of the instant
hardly any water . . .
Do any of Lauterbach’s commentaries brought together in The Night Sky provide any help? “Inventing Unreality,” its second jumpstart chapter, does a bit, but you have to want to believe that unreality in worth inventing since it seems to be so good at inventing and proliferating both itself and its corporate progeny. Among its numbered integuments we find this:
Reality had no fixed address. I could not keep it in a frame, it drifted, toward and away, accumulating as fast as it dissolved, a mercurial temporality that argued against the ordering sequences on which it was, ostensibly, founded. Temporality and chronology were antagonistic, sequences of possibility and probability were misaligned. What I desired began to separate, like a shadow from its object, to drift into scenarios of salvation and promise, installed on a phantom.
household, its slippery incipience, meant that one was obliged to invent.
This is not about inventing, it’s about having had to invent, at some point in a chronology (as opposed to a temporality) loosed from its moorings in clock-time, a “reality” of serviceable dimensions. Just how such a reality might look to Lauterbach, given her roots in that Conjunctions soil in which little beyond flailing diagrammatics and graph-paper problematics laid out in Lobachevskian seizures of coordination seems to thrive, is anybody’s guess. We do know, because Lauterbach tells us, that it “had no fixed address.” But does it now, having perhaps acquired one through researches carried out by her into how its opposite number or counterworld might be “invented”? All that aside, we are still abandoned like waifs in that modicum of “slippery incipience” she alludes to so loosely and dropped quite a ways from the “earth house hold” of a Gary Snyder, for example, whose home base, bound though it might be to clockless inferentials like Zen coincidentality, is never left “out there” as something merely “inventable.” (Questioning both the question’s and the questioner’s inherent reality is a self-canceling proposition in Zen pataphysics. One or the other can be seen as “questionable,” but not the two “together” struggling in simultaneity’s singular embrace.)
What has any of this to do with the problematical poetics of “To & So”? Not a lot if viewed literally as a vade mecum for the Lauterbachian re-invention of reality, but a good deal if what I’ve quoted above is ferried to the point where it becomes unavoidable that the poet not indulge in straight talk about just how the category terms she is strewing about like Rockefeller dimes are to be applied. For starters, we cannot invent unreality without first uninventing some other reality which it is to replace, or at least what passes for such in the main. Lauterbach’s poetic invocation of apperceptuals “caught on the fly” are not so much “inventive” as they are counter-inventive, by which I mean assimilative of particulars named and accounted for. Realities are not produced by shaking a kaleidoscope, but rather by finding the combining form for the molecules of a cognitive order not hitherto accounted for in any known schema or “frame” (to use Lauterbach’s term) of particulars and reconfiguring its operating system. What constitutes the “real” in this context is not a property of the particulars themselves but a way of putting them together so that their resulting recombination passes beyond mere “actuality” into the realm of something believable as well as believed in.
It is precisely here that her rationale comes up a few platelets short of a circulatory poetics. Perhaps an overactive hypothalmus born of the influence exerted on her work by the blisteringly cerebral German emigré poet Rosmarie Waldrop and her sense of the poem as a “counterworld” might have contributed significantly to this woofless warp of Lauterbach’s. “I have always thought of poetry,” Waldrop has written (none too ambivalently), “as a way of building a world . . . Building a counterworld, not better but other.” The temptation to play the anchorite and join in such making of “worlds within words” urged Lauterbach to propose (as in fact she did when introducing this poet’s work at a reading in New York five years ago) “that [Waldrop’s] counterworld is better, made as it is of the singular materials of her articulating architecture, built for humans, to live through, to think about, in which to love.”
Half-idealistic fiat, half-surrealist surety against tumbling futures in the Freudian unconscious—itself ever footloose and “fancy”-free in the Coleridgean sense—Waldrop’s counterworld is more about dredging hulks from the sea bottom of denatured language than taken up with “materials of [an] articulating architecture . . . in which to love.” Its rationale enacts the taffy-pull of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets in reverse, though still driven by the same desire (or power trip) to commandeer the hypnotics of capitalist discourse in the name of goods not bearing upon present ills because not subject to trade or trade-off, as wafts a Charles Bernstein poem to that intense inane of which Shelley (never a flesher-out of visions glimpsed) scarcely dreamed. Broaching such, one can’t help being borne back in time to a place in American poetry where all such revanchments of bloodless, even vampiric avant-gardes were hardly more than a gleam in Marjorie Perloff’s eye; when poetry itself seemed more interesting than any of the thousand and one things one could say about it in the sort of rag-tagbuch which Lauterbach’s The Night Sky, for all its miscellaneous excursions into the life-in-art-beyond-art, brings achingly to mind.
Which provides a segue—albeit a not very neat one—into Lauterbach’s “writings on the poetics of experience,” her commentaries and random jottings by the light of whose stars she has steered a course as poet over the last three decades. I say not a very neat segue because what has prompted it is the feeling most readers of The Night Sky are likely to have when working their way through its curvaceous meanderings that the cited remarks of other writers—whether it be Emerson, Rilke, Celan, or Hannah Arendt—are almost always more interesting and to the point, whatever that point might be, than her own. When these writers become markedly less engrossing and to the point is when Lauterbach comments upon them and coats them with the sticky rhetoric born of 30 or more years of ricocheting Theory around the particle accelerator tracks of academe. Here she is, busily applying mascara to the cross-hairs of the sights she has Whitman caught in:
. . A trope is thus a way
of carrying a perpetual imperfection across the river of Becoming.
American transcendentalism struggled to convert Christian “afterlife”
into perpetual immanence: to conceive of an essential equanimity and
reciprocity between and among beings and their souls. Whitman thought of
words, language itself, as “spiritual”; he shifts its terrain from the
Bible’s originary and absolute Logos (“In the beginning was the Word”)
to a naturalized demotic discourse. . . . The beautiful recursive moments of
inquiry and supposition come to rest with Whitman’s vision of an unbounded
temporal mobility: forward, onward, outward. The luck of dying is the final
subtraction of difference (of race, gender, class, age) whereby all souls
are equal, as the grassy graves’ “smallest sprout” attests.
I once had a professor in graduate school who scribbled in the margin of a seminar paper I submitted on Norman Mailer in which I had speculated (in lieu of a rigorous inquiry) that Stephen Rojack, the hero his novel An American Dream, had sodomized his wife’s German maid in order to erase from his mind the indelible memory of having once “plugged” an adolescent Nazi soldier in World War II, “so that’s what they were doing.” I can imagine a similar bon mot being inscribed next to the puffery reproduced above, perhaps opposite some deathless fatuity like “the luck of dying.” Trampled thus under his own leaves of grass, the good gray epitome of American democracy is reduced to a paste suspiciously redolent of Foucauldian mulch. Or consider Lauterbach’s belaboring of Paul Celan’s notion, presented in a speech accepting the Georg Büchner Prize in Darmstadt in 1960, of a “still-here” which any poem weighed down by the “already-no-more” must somehow fight its way back to:
“still-here” implies a spatio-temporal presence, the “still” evoking
the temporal stasis of duration, and the “here” fixing that stasis in
place. The poem on this reading might be what most fundamentally stands for,
or stands in for, the fact of someone’s existence. The someone here is not
necessarily the author—that is, the poem need not be in a literal sense
“about” the author—but a re-enactment of the poet’s self-witnessing
in, or as, language. It is as if the poet were composing her or his own
ghost and sending it out to a place where it vanishes, leaving behind the
herald of its having been.
Lauterbach encumbers this monstrance of philosophical hocus-pocus with a parenthetical host provided by a grand-master of Derridean flimflam, Jean-Luc Nancy: “Present is that which occupies a place. The place is place—site, situation, disposition—in the coming into space of a time, in a spacing that allows that something come into presence, in a unique time that engenders itself in this point in space, as its spacing.” One has of course to be French to be able even to almost get away with something that outrageously nebulous. Being German and trying it nearly always results in a warning to cease and desist—unless of course one is Heidegger, and then the pass given is more the “get out of jail free” sort than any license given for eliding common sense for good and reasonable cause.
One would like to be able to grant Lauterbach a pass on such matters as well, but her case lacks equally the granitic defiance of that of Heidegger and the slushy equivocations of Lyotard’s or Lacoue-Labarthe’s. It’s obvious on every page that a compendium like The Night Sky desired more for itself than the transiting cachet of one more ramble-through-the-brambles of postmodern poetics. Though rendered incurably ersatz by the inescapable death-dribble of postmodernism over the last ten to fifteen years, the ways in which Lauterbach’s pronouncements on poetry and art over- and underwrite the debilitations of congruence and fibrillations of dissuetude her own verse enacts make The Night Sky indispensable reading for all desirous to know just what it was that finally drove a stake through PoMo’s heart. There are less interesting and rewarding occasions for pondering postmodernism’s demise than the detailed autopsy conducted in Lauterbach’s notebook-memoir. Empedocles on Etna was no closer to the ground zero of his time, culturally speaking, than this poet, so quintessentially paradigmatic of that archly disingenuous interim constituting our recent past does she seem. While our local volcano might lie somewhat to the east of Etna, its rumbling suggest a bubbling on the hob as well, and on no less short a time-fuse. Elliptical poems might be the last things anyone would turn to bone up on apocalypse avoidance, but if you’re Ann Lauterbach that’s no reason to forgo thoughtful nibbling on their half-truths, their slantwise metonymies, or the spindrift gaze they lob toward Nightmare Alley from the vantage point of some conceptual artist’s romance with a hatful of captions. Maybe the problem is not so much with the less than firm handshake with which Lauterbach grasps the assertable than with the graspability of whole truths themselves. This seems anything but farfetched when one considers that even oldest chestnuts are chewed over with difficulty by philosophers working with little more than makeshift partials and an uncontrollable letch for the textural. To be sure, whole truths are not for everybody—or at least not for those who see little disadvantageous in swapping the lumpen but comportable “every” in everybody for some anonymous “any” outsourced in as “anybody” from the back of Theory’s beyond.
Still, there is more to some of the curves of the slalom course that is the Lauterbach canon than meets the eye disinclined to view the perspectival ramblings meandered through in The Night Sky as anything less than wobbly, if not astigmatic in the extreme. On the plus side may be cited her ability to run riffs on the changes of other poets (mostly modernist—Eliot, Stevens—or early postmodernist—Ashbery, Schuyler) while sounding only rarely like the insincerest form of flattery had taken a wrong turn and hit plagiarism full on, while on the minus side there are those instances of off-road wildcatting with their inevitable shearing of limbs from trunk by Moto-Cross tires that are not easily explained away. Open Hum anywhere, and you will find laid out like drunks at a block party impenetrable wallbangers like “Self-Portrait as I Am.” Again, a good deal of the latter must be dished out if the full flavorlessness of what goes down in the poem is to be fully conveyed:
Not the law
abiding here, embodied, decorative
end-papers resembling Jackson Pollock’s Painting No. 2 but
unfinished, pausing on the trek up the mountain for honey
an error on the dial and so
the person who no longer kisses on the mouth
the reason for that
visitor, as we are, moving through
but not wind
wild fire this is an image of direction
so the songs go and so
some ashes on paper, the sun
yellowish on its way down it has no sound the heat
abating is local
but the roads
but the roads are cool
traversing the expectant . . .
Well, you get the idea: all unlobbed sense on unlimited hiatus and inches to go before everyone sleeps.
Not all of Hum is ho-hum, but enough of it—a lot more than half, if somewhat less than two-thirds, give or take a smidgeon—is, and what isn’t can be chalked up to Lauterbach’s having responded to an inner voice sufficiently objective to make ignoring both the carrion call of harsh detractors and the mess-call of a much too easily preached-to choir a possibility. Where a lack of gimlet-like scrutiny applied to premises and foregrounds ends up working for her is in poems like “Tent,” where follow-through supplants any need or even desire for follow-up:
Maybe it will fall away.
Maybe what is interesting will also be beautiful
although that is—
not to look out or at, but into.
Come closer, so close
what you see can be seen as hindsight.
The form seems too simple.
The form seems an error of judgment.
As if one had jumped across a boundary
to find a missing gift, left
in the brute junk of wandering gangs.
This is another way of speaking about intention,
about the theater of gathering.
Here, the “lecture poem” enacts something beyond the mere brain-panning for fool’s gold by pulling away from the broadly elliptical toward that more maidenly resort to spark-gapping which sees elision as a peremptory, even unavoidable condition for speech. Not in the sense, or senselessness, held to by brain-dead deconstructionists, but as a limitation imposed by the flatlining of comparability rather than by any spiking of identity-destroying difference broaching the groaning board put before us by semantic meaning. If the fallout and particulate residues from such atmospherics seem irrefrangibly Heideggerian, funny things do happen on the way to those forums where hindsights achieved by traveling faster in the direction where others are headed than away from where they’ve just been are traded in or simply traded can cause one to end up behind rather than beside oneself in any untimely tryst one might speed to with transport. In Lauterbach, all proves relative except where relativity is loosed upon notions dependent on foundational stability for any negotiations with change that itself careens without warning out-of-control.
. . .
I had said if we omit the subject
and speak only the language of form
if the girl painting paint
and the boy writing knows words
but she has nothing to paint and he has nothing to say
how can meaning be made?
Form is responsive to subject
or subject to form
when they merge, content is made, content
is the merger of subject with form.
If subject remains only subject
if form is only form
there is no content, and no meaning
can come to those who look
or those who listen or to those who read.
These are necessary attachments.
In terms of the table of elements laid down in Charles Olson’s manifesto “Projective Verse” (1950)—“Form is never more than an extension of content”— Einstein’s passing trains seem to have undergone a name change. Train A, “form,” runs true to itself; but Train B, content once to be labeled “content,” has morphed somehow into an express tagged “subject” and is moving faster across the periplum of readerly alertness than form’s conventional traffic-mate. If only content merging with subject is form, then the relativity inherent in how A sorts with B is decidedly skewed to retrofit Lauterbach’s universe with a false poetic constant that, while having the pretensions to constancy of a speed of light, can only provide only a subjective slant of light (pace Emily Dickinson) on the real constant’s momentous glisterings. Email to the powers that be: “These are [not, repeat not ] necessary attachments.”
And Magritte’s pipe is not a pipe, even if that is only true when the smoke signals attributed to it point unequivocally to a security blanket’s ups and downs. Which is a catechresis Lauterbach is most willing to accommodate herself to, at least on those days when a hawk and a handsaw can appear comfortingly hookah-like to one given to ironing representational double takes into the prevailing epistémè’s univocal trompes l’oeil.
But there are bigger fish to fry in this discussion of why Ann Lauterbach’s ultimate place in the scheme of American poetry is, despite her immense reputation, less than assured. Indeed, her case is widely representative of a slew of poets who, having matured since the ‘60s, persistently mistake a grid of scintillating poetical effects for a poem. So anxious were these poets to leap from the New Critical bandwagon exalting poems as autonomous verbal icons, as unified fields of effectual meaning rather than slipcases of meaningful, or not so meaningful, effects, that they ended by exceeding even the Beats and their cousins from Black Mountain in thumbing their collective nose at rudimentary coherence. Let me be as clear about this as I can, because too many words in recent years have been spilled around the edges of this debate without touching its center where I think the greatest inaction has been concentrated. To do this, we need to stare directly into the eye of the beast, the glass eye of the beast, which is that grid of scintillating poetical effects I just alluded to. If we do that, we will see staring back at us something that looks very much like the opening lines of Lauterbach’s “Frayed Edges,” from The Call (2000):
Domain at hitherto causation listening booth page
will show you who is right, has
stood the test
a la carte
lay the blame on, bear the blame
New neighbors have arrived
In their slender
That’s another pair of shoes,
dead men’s shoes
have descended the ladder
to the philosopher’s hole, his
spider and butterfly and bird.
. . .
This is not just flotsam from the wading pool of Lauterbach’s friend and role-model Joe Brainard; it’s an eidolon of the very soul of his practice, if that’s the right word for chaos verbalized beyond even the loopy mayhem of a work like Ted Berrigan’s unicycle of Sonnets, about whose faux-Shakespearean nothings there has been since the early ‘60s so much ado. This, to put the matter broadly, is the approved style of the poets and other quasi-poetic stylists associated now for several decades with with Bradford Morrow’s journal Conjunctions, of which Ann Lauterbach has these many years been a contributing editor. This group—I hesitate to burden it with the label “movement”—cites as its credo some lines from Anselm Hollo—
Poetry can be so many more things
Than what most people believe it is.
—and follow to the Pauline letter ever jot and tittle of this spiritual key to the kingdom of post-postmodernism. Among its more notable members are Alice Notley, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Charles Bernstein, Susan Wheeler, Michael Palmer, Rosmarie Waldrop, Paul Hoover, Nathaniel Tarn, Fanny Howe, Cole Swensen, and a host of others who come and go with greater or less frequency through the magazine’s paper portals. (More substantial figures like John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, William H. Gass, Jorie Graham, and Robert Kelly have allowed their names to appear on Conjunctions’s roster of contributing editors but remain idiosyncratically aloof from the group style which ranges from “parallel universe” New York School to “abstract impressionist” offshoot of Russian constructivist technique crudely sieved through the writings of Guy Davenport.) Surprisingly, much of this group’s published shoptalk stresses the role played by qualities of sound as a performative factor in poetry even though its primarily emphasis on the printed page would seem to stress the typographic dimensions of poetry as almost material word-art. The following bits of rationale exchanged between Charles Bernstein and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge in a “dialogue” which appeared in Conjuctions:35: American Poetry, States of the Art seven years ago provide a stereo-optic glimpse of its groupthink, or, as I prefer to call it, Yaddo, Yaddo, Yaddo. First, a remark by Bernstein about being “carried along” by Berssenbrugge’s poetry:
. . I have been thinking about about the way your work envelops me in its
own world of extended sound waves, carrying me along as I read and then
lapping back for another line. It’s not mesmerizing exactly but there is a
strong tidal pull. You seem to have turned Clark Coolidge’s [another
member of the Conjunctions circle]
notion of “sound as thought” into sound as perception and then again
thought as perception. . . . The “real” of which you speak is
transactional and temporal, a flickering pulse that we hear only when we
listen. I’m curious about some lines at the end of the third section [of
“Hearing”], where you write, “they withdraw from matter to
representation which gives more agency.” It seems to me the matter of your
poems is very much this “shimmering” “translucence” of listening,
where it’s not that “the images have power, because the drama is
real,” but, rather, where the real is the reel not the image. . .
A little further on, Bernstein in taking up Berssenbrugge’s collaborations with the graphic artist Kiki Smith in Endocrinology and other projects, asks her, “What is the valence of the visual in those works?” Berssenbrugge responds:
. . . I try to make language into a net for my meaning which tends to be emotion in continuum with some perceptual or conceptual slant. Net, grid, sieve, appear often. My voice is given to me. I try to use it without strain. My only conscious intention with voice is to deliver the words. With words I consciously make the net. Lately I’ve been trying a new sound, so as not to get in the habit of a sound that sounds intimate. Agnes Martin once said, “I have everything I ever wanted and still when I wake up, I feel depressed. That proves emotions are abstract.” I’m experimenting with emotion that doesn’t sound emotional.
My initial hope with Endocrinology was to learn from Kiki how to express emotion as a direct narrative. She was working with the body, tears, milk, blood, flow, dead loved ones. . . . Texts and visuals were generated by our conversations. It was also part of a long-term exploration I started . . . to align the visual and verbal mental planes, a separation you referred to as channel separation. Kiki and I treated visual and verbal as a continuum of material, and the valence was the energy of our interaction, for which her visual power was a marvelous given. The resulting book is like a body—transparent layered with blue organs and ligaments of text. . . .
me, the visual, in landscape and art, has always been a vital and liberating
location from which to work in language.
Try as I might, I cannot bring anything said above to the aid of my understanding when confronting, for example, Part 2 of the Berssenbrugge poem “Hearing” mentioned therein:
A bird falls out of the air, through the anti-weave, into the anti-net,
Twenty-four crows upstate, each fall is a gestural syllable.
Cover them with a blue cloth of creatures ready to be born, contact
like starlight that will arrive, for sure.
Let mothers catch them, raccoon, labrador bitch, girl, interspecies
conservative mothers, arms out like foliage, general, no locomotion
of their own. . . .
There’s no need to quote any more. When Sir Thomas Nashe wrote “A brightness falls from the air” almost four centuries ago, his object of inner perception avoided, so far as anyone can tell, anti-weaves, anti-nets, and delineations of anti-immanence. Can anyone even remotely gripped by sanity claim we’ve outdistanced the likes of Nashe in coming our long way into what is rashly advertised as our own? Either her approach to verse is too subtle by half or only half as subtle as is required to be too subtle by half. Whichever is the the case, its presumable level of subtlety falls considerably short of the near-to-blasting level of explicitness of poets once derided by grumpy old formalists who piled on Donald M. Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry when it came out in 1960. Poets no longer much fussed over such as John Wieners, Jack Spicer, Paul Blackburn, Larry Eigner and Edward Dorn all made, and continue to make, more sense by the aggravated foot than any of the Conjunctions crowd make by the belabored and beleaguered yard.
While I hate to be dismissive of any group of poets and fictionists that honestly and sincerely pursues what it believes to be promising and even necessary directions in the arts, there is no use pussyfooting around the fact that for much too long, Conjunctions, under the direction of its editor Bradford Morrow, has become synonymous with pretentious and even stillborn writing. In less palmy days when grant money was much more difficult to come by, the sort of thing that appears between its bi-annual covers was mostly looked upon as a mutant form of vanity-press publishing. Today, when magazines can Poetry find themselves swimming in plötzlich beneficence to the tune of $100,000,000, there has arisen in well-subsidized quarters an almost unlimited freedom to publish anything that has the look, sheen and sound of a revived avant-garde. And when such apparent ferment is propelled by enthusuastic financial backing from respected universities and their foundations, its power to dazzle and coerce are multiplied a hundredfold.
Being avant-garde when almost no else is remains an unsmiling and thankless job. It means never being able to close or have a day unspent saving art from this or that creeping predation, or far worse to contemplate, from itself. Conjunctions people keep their devotion to duty at peak levels all the time because they remember what happened when the journal relaxed its grip for what seemed like but a moment and released art to the thankful and smiling molestations of such effete pretenders to grace as the Paris Review.
Now I have a thankless task of my own to perform, and that’s to play the accountant in determining Ann Lauterbach’s contribution to the last quarter-century of our poetry. Of her substantial contribution of our “poetry” there is doubtless much to say but I have no desire or intention to plumb those shallows, or “shallows.” I can only confess in all honesty to finding nothing in her verse since 1975 treasurable, cherishable, or by any measure indispensable. I can on the other hand quite honestly confess to having enjoyed reading, and even rereading, the brief cycle of poems titled “Poem (with Postcard from Vermont” and “For Example,” (from And For Example); “Notes For a Conversation” (from Glamor); “Nocturnal Reel” (from On A Stair); “The Walled Palace,” “Platonic Subject,” Approaching the Panorama,” “Inner Life,” and “Subject to Change” (from Before Recollection); and “Event Horizon,” “Field,” and “Topos” (from Hum).
The rest pretty much denies Gertrude Stein her own well deserved siesta. Which is not in any way to put Stein down, but only to express the desire that to her enormous achievement—her enormous unrepeatable achievement—in reiterability be left to lie in its unalterably original state.