Online Edition: Summer 2009

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 Or to Begin Again

 Ann Lauterbach

 Penguin ($18)

 by Michael D. Snediker

Ann Lauterbach’s new collection, Or to Begin Again, ravishes in the geometrical, in geometry’s attempt to make sense of time. The circle, the sequence, the point, the angle, the line—such a vocabulary saturates this collection of poems, and compromises its sundry radii on pages already held by a poetics insistent on the non-antiseptic capriciousness of mathematics itself. Vitruvius’s de architectura argued for architectural and somatic sympatico on the level of circle and square. Lauterbach’s collection differently argues for the sympathies between the empirical and the lyric on the level of circle and line. The point, the line, the circle spiraling like an Emerson pond or Smithson jetty: iteration spins measurement into narrative, or rather, to the brink of narrative at which point Lauterbach’s shapes self-rescind, and we are left with echo, trace.

Linear vivacity is suggested in this poetry’s predilection for the parade—a line made raucous, celebratory, symbolic, navigatory (more simply, moving):

The great stalks are alert, their
shambles piled: maybe another parade.

Or a few pages later,

                                        phantom aptitude

for which there is only a parade.

The line, as both collective and formal denominator, is uncontainable: not only in Lauterbach’s constellatory splays of language across the page (Twombly meets Pollack meets Ptolemy of Alexandria), but even in her couplets (the “shambles piled”). The parade, macabrely, likewise morphs into carnival and circus, the circle made spectacle of carnage.

Or to Begin Again takes beginning as formal construct as much as thematic. The formality of thematics, and vice versa, arises at the outset in the book’s "A Note to the Reader:" “Throughout this collection, I am interested in differences between spoken utterance and written text.” Lauterbach’s interest is as much in the spatiality of the preposition (“in differences between”) as in the preposition’s movement toward comparison or adjudication. The betweenness of utterance and text—the rippling between concentric Emersonian circles—constitutes the book’s stage, in which words are delicately, profusely, and unavailingly held in the wings. (The book is rife with the avian, a fuselage in flames, which in consolation becomes the wings in which the burning object careens.) Lauterbach’s words, as opposed to the words toward which they truculently, ambivalently, and playfully point, lie in the wings of their being said or written. Which is to say, lie in the generosity of being thought, as though poetry could elude the fate of textual commitment and exist, spectrally, as words anterior to words as such. These are words on the tip of a tongue, or pen, committed and noncommital. As a collection, the book offers a phenomenology of impatient consideration, even as the poetry itself nearly exhausts the alacrity of its own experiment.

A line, or a circle. Centripetal or centrifugal. Lauterbach, like Bartleby, prefers not to choose one over the other, but rather, executes with tenacity and pyrrhic velocity the experiment of the latter nostalgically keening into the former, the former (nervously, impulsively) migrating back to center. The line is a path, a sequitur (“Drab us; lonely sequitur”). To begin again reimagines the non sequitur as non-perjoratively fruitful redirection: “hurrying across the path, now stymied, which way the wind blows, which branch, and over, a cloth, impediment to the friend, in the position of that, her own surely omitted but not forgotten, so it becomes . . .”

Alongside the book’s suggested interest in the differences between speech and writing, Or to Begin Again presents an archive of thought intent on rehearsal (“at the far side of the miserable hill / an orchestra is rehearsing for the factory’s ball”) of the verbal without committing itself to it—the parade as freeze-frame, suspended in the mind. Or to recall Lauterbach’s poem, “Alone in Open (Bill Viola),” Or to Begin Again, like Viola’s art, inhabits (both curates and disrupts) a set of thresholds beyond conventional duration, vigilant of threshold crossing into something else. In the midst of pulling and not pulling punches—as with all of Lauterbach’s poetry, the punches hit when least expected—the poems are most overcoming in their awareness of evading indelibility (vicissitudes of the irrevocable). Witness, for instance, a prose section that conjures a factory without designating the factory’s purpose or output:

Meanwhile I will think a little in the middle. Think the day has a swan in it, long-necked and idle. Think without the lingering kiss, its slight partition. Think of the suspense of stages as you mount the stair, of the architecture spawned in mud in a thicket of thorns, of how the literal squanders its chance. Think that the heart is cut out of cloth and the cloth decorated with cutout hearts. Think how this would lead to thinking about the heart’s own factory

Indelibility, here, exists in the fervent necessity of imagining writing as not-yet-written: the palimpsestic proscenium of beginning again, both wearing the scar of false start and engaging the world as though the scar were not perceptible:

The scar set and the tune rose into its thin retainer.
And the blood stopped running, and the scar set.

The scar set and the tune rose.

The heart, versus the cutout hearts with which it is adorned, clarifies the book’s pulsive scrutiny of the mimetic. To begin again is to imagine a world without mimesis, even as the anterior presides adumbratively. The anterior is both that against which the book revolts, and on which it leans, so long as the anterior remains secured in the space of its own natal narrative. Think the day, think without, think of the suspense, think how this would lead. . . . This is a poetry on one hand attached to the irrevocable, and on another attached to the weird, unpredictable largesse of a voice that can be called back, a heart decorated with cutout hearts. That the heart woos mimetic cutouts of itself suggests mimesis not only as pinked or sheared, but as decorative—simultaneously deriding and deferential.

Derison and deference inform the second of the book’s three sections. The premise of Alice inhabiting Eliot’s Wasteland is cute, and much of this poem is exorbitantly cute to the point of discomfiture, if only because the sections which precede and follow dent and dement the premise of Alice’s extended interlocution with an unspecified, disembodied voice. This isn’t to say that cuteness, here, is non-purposive. If the frame sections of this book enact a new theory of iteration, “Alice in the Wasteland” proffers some version of the theory’s practice, the risk of committing cuteness (or what in an earlier poem Lauterbach terms ridiculousness) to the page, even as the repetitive quiddity of fairy tales already looks backward and forward to other forms of itself. The book’s first section ends, “Ruin floods into images of new ruin and disappears. / Again! cries the child, Again! / Once upon a time.” In this context, the re-telling of Alice feels recycled, if not spent. It traffics in an economy of scarcity (“Does love have a quantity, like acres and dollars? How peculiar”), and Alice’s own questions often smack of an ingenuousness akin to Wallace Stevens’s Crispin. Such faux-didacticism—someone in the poem is learning something at a rate slower than the poem’s own precociousness—earlier appears in the first section’s “Realm of Ends”:

Francis is a fiction of the glare, turning
into the Tuscan sun, under the juniper, among flowers.

Doves perch on his head and shit on his sleeves.
This is an example of natural observable fact.

Insight in “Alice in the Wasteland” arises in the intersection of Alice’s naïveté and that naïveté’s consequences, just as the candor of a fairy tale (once upon a time, incessantly repeated) inadvertently approaches what, diegetically speaking, it cannot itself imagine. “Perhaps, she thought, I am dissolving. / She began to hum.” The section, on the verge of spoilage or Benjaminian ruin, sometimes seems to sacrifice itself for the sake of the book’s larger, disquietingly punctilious hypotheses. As Lauterbach’s Alice herself surmises, “I am an effect . . . I am a mere motif at the mercy of someone else’s pleasure, someone who thinks by pretending that I am alive she can make the birds comprehend something beyond their existence, but she is wrong.” Regardless of mercy, the section’s sing-song feels as intrusively, theatrically guileless as Joanna Newsom lyrics:

What do you care if I’m a flea or a gnat?
     Or a very small, excellent spider?
          I am not a mouse or a rat
and I don’t know what rhymes with spider.

“Alice in the Wasteland” feels more ruinous than the idiosyncratically splintering, showering decisions of the book’s frame sections; the latter feel more reliable, if only because they give the sense of having endured the weather that “Alice in the Wasteland” seems only fleetingly to anticipate. Not that cuteness and unreliability foreclose mastery, but this section’s bravery, for me, lies in its so long sustaining its own quasi-vaudeville snappy curiousness, a form of intensity less persuasive or salubriously confounding than Lauterbach’s other experiments in tenacious speed. At the same time, inseparable from the latter intensity, it is a risky dare held out to both poem and reader. This infliction of commitment pushes both text and readerly response to an edge of credulity, which the very different oxygen of the other sections buoys.

At some point, Alice tries, haphazardly, to console the moon, which nocturnally begins again and again, as both lunar fact and lyric ubiquity:

   I know. It makes me cringe with shame. Moon this moon that, lovers and
moonlight, nocturnes and sonnets. It’s a total cliché, Stick an r in and you get
                                             moron.

Or to Begin Again rescues the moon from cliché as much as it rescues cliché, in the sense that the book’s redress of non sequitur and thick litter (as in the book’s first poem, the mischievously saturated and mobile objects of a dream) frees repetition from recognizability (whether in terms of Freud, Nietzsche, Deleuze, etc.). The recursiveness of beginning again and again sacrifices singularity (“bring back the sorrow of a single loss”) for a cause not describable beyond the nimbus-like exhilarations and exhaustions of Lauterbach’s very singular book. The repercussions of initiation are great enough, this book suggests, that we might well fall into that rabbit-hole of hesitancy. If all beginnings (diacritically or otherwise) are in peril of feeling or of later being archived as false starts, then why not more scrupulously take note of factitiousness as poetic and ethical effort? More compelling than Alice’s assuaging of the moon is that of a later poem, “Constellation in Chalk”:

Strip the prayer from the kiss web,
it is merely sham. Salvation has undone
her eternal soul into little itinerant drops,
each younger than dew.
The moon’s strap slips off the shoulder of night.
Night of Nights it is called: all must follow.

All must follow, and in the gorgeous intelligence of Lauterbach’s writing, we learn that succession leads to differently recyclable itinerancies, lexical and otherwise. As Dickinson illuminates the thrill-flinch of afterwards, Lauterbach illuminates the contingencies of anteriority (to be distinguished from the ossification of a priori):

So that with nothing held back we sigh,
beyond time, for that green pasture where time
stands still.
Does not. Does. Go back
before the beginning, before
a promise was made. The end.

These lines, from the book’s final eponymous poem, can only intimate that poem’s incantatorily serial sixteen sections. Less “Comedian as the Letter C” than Stevens’s “Sea Surface Full of Clouds,” “Or to Begin Again” cedes to and defies chronology, an aubade to aubades, the flourishing, condolent divesture of divestures. Each section ends with “the end,” each section (except the first and last) begins with “Or to begin again.” We have moved from salvage of non sequitur to parousia unmoored from its own trajectory:

and the river newly revealed
through naked bark
like a silver coin skipped across time
the migrations of time
the small noun time.

Lauterbach’s river is fugacious in ways Heraclitus could only dream, even as this quicksilver simile lingers, in its surprising beauty, longer than the simile itself. Time within time within time suggests an analogue to memory spilled across a horizontal axis. Or perhaps time both seeps as it spreads, and we are called (and called again) to keep the small noun in purposive, multitudinous motion.


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