Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter 1997/1998 (#8)

On A Stair by Ann Lauterbach

On A Stair

Ann Lauterbach

Penguin ($14.95)

by S. P. Healey

I found a joke in an obscure encyclopedia of poetics: A man walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder and says to the bartender, "What's the difference between good and bad experimental poetry?" The bartender looks at the parrot and says: "I'm sorry, we don't serve humans."

This gets at the dilemma Ann Lauterbach finds herself in. Like most daring poets, in order to get at the truth, she messes with our expectations of what the human voice should look and sound like on the page, but this risks sending readers into oblivion, or at least frustration. In her new collection, On a Stair, when that voice breaks down the result can be a poem with the personality of an instruction manual and the readability of a palimpsest (as eyes scan the page, one layer of text emerges and vanishes, then another, and so on). But more often these poems find that fine edge where an alien language becomes familiar:

Father, I am deliberately
missing the events
by which time is told.
I refuse nourishment, I am
an old woman
ranting on a stoop.

And this is why Lauterbach transcends her surface resemblance to Language Poetry and its tendency toward fractious wordplay, and continues to emerge as a serious contender in American poetry with this, her fifth volume.

Aptly titled, On a Stair tries to locate us between up and down, here and there, but it's also a reminder that, as a liminal space, the stair always invites us to take another step, and moreover, may not even be attached to a grounded staircase. So dislocation is a force in this poetry, unleashing violently enjambed lines and a syntax that defies gravity. But rather than abandoning us in the confusion, Lauterbach usually uses it as a tool to build a true illumination of the mind working to know itself.

Among the most memorable poems in this volume are the most idiosyncratic, in part because they scout possible paths Lauterbach might travel in the future. Scattered throughout, there's the series of gemlike lyrical odes, each titled "ON" followed by its given subject in parentheses. At the book's midpoint, there's the formidable twelve-part epic that colors nursery rhyme innocence with a metaphysical hangover. And the penultimate poem is a confessional juggernaut called "N/EST" that explores the speaker's history of abortions and childlessness intersected with her impulses to become a poet.

Lauterbach followed these impulses like stairs toward something brilliant and sublime. If every choice is an opportunity, it's also a sacrifice. If the poet has any responsibility, it's only to write good poems, which may be what the bartender in that joke is really trying to say: a good poem is one that serves humans, and Lauterbach remembers this again and again.

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