Photograph: Hope Abrams
Under the Sign
Penguin, $22 (paper)
At the core of Under the Sign, Ann Lauterbach’s ninth poetry collection, is a multitudinous us manqué, a wayward Whitmanic we. As she has throughout her exacting oeuvre, a body of work that includes abundant criticism and collaborations with artists, Lauterbach maintains a vigilance for others and other things so consistently curious as to define a poetics of radical, plural caring: “For to make something,” she writes, “is to care for it.” Lauterbach’s poetry is not hobbled—or hobgoblined—by this consistent emphasis on caring; it is enlarged and opened up by it. For almost four decades, she has kept asking, in poem after allusive poem, how wisdom arrives, how senses make sense, how art matters and happens—and what love, and loss, have to do with it.
Posing and composing her poems’ searching questions, Lauterbach hazards some answers. Her partial, even haphazard, responses contain and address our shifting, provisional, accident-prone reality; her impartial, open-ended responses clear the air for further wondering. Lauterbach believes such detached “whole fragments” are worth listening to and waiting for, worth tending. By definition and by design, they cannot wholly satisfy us or the poet, so she must continue her inquiry, the expansive opening up that is her iterated task.
In their ongoing engagement with matters of care, Lauterbach’s poems encounter further worlds and avenues of thought beyond those that mark her personal starting points. We are far more used to the other kind of poem, the one tethered to a limited, subjective self that, in one guise or another, says, Let me tell you about me. Despite the ubiquity of this stance, Lauterbach believes—has long believed—that it no longer serves, or cares for, us. It is no longer even safe.
Lauterbach cares about drone warfare, school shootings, torture, digital-age alienations, toxic assets, and environmental degradations borne of consumerism. She makes connections among such evils and implicates us all, including herself, in their perpetuation. And yet, though these cares are part of each poem’s mix, they are not her subject. According to Lauterbach’s own formulation—in The Given & The Chosen, her 2011 meditation on what art is about—they are the events or objects from which she releases the content more crucial to her. What she fundamentally cares about is unleashing a poetics that is up to the task of thinking through our bleakest matter without being dumbstruck by it.
The result of all that Lauterbach has contented herself with is determinedly non-prescriptive. Her poems “make nothing happen,” except a way to think hard—or to hold out hope for thought to occur. Thinking hard may be a precondition of political discourse or action, but creating or inciting a political response is not the poet’s aim. The aim is thought-enacted-in-language as a precondition of feeling wisely and more inclined—perhaps—to receive and give humane treatment. To do less, she suggests, is to truck in the same denatured thinking and speech that attaches to atrocity—9/11, Abu Ghraib, polar melt—whenever we seek to address, justify, or deny it.
In “Zero & A” for instance, a “biographical spill” resulting in the “irrational disorder” of one’s household or health is linked with a small disordered object, an oil-soaked seabird, and a large disordering event, BP’s gulf oil disaster:
Winged creature stranded in oiled starlight.
A shadow’s weight filmed
unfurls toward its catastrophic bloom,
orifice of the ancient cavecon-cealed secrets depositedborne flashinginto an astonished fount:
toxic flames pillage the air.
The “orifice of the ancient cave,” from which the fossil fuel “blooms” forth, evokes Plato’s Cave: it screens us from the video images that are most consequential, those that capture our irreversible poisoning of the global ecosystem.
Lauterbach devises an alarmed and alarming poetics, one that startles and unsettles, as her epigraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson attests: “People wish to be settled; only so far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Often taking Emerson as model, source, and “companion in thought,” her poems’ goals are existential and almost impossible to achieve, dreams in which “to dream is / to proliferate / in the opening that is / always shut.”
This encapsulation of method comes early in Under the Sign and typifies its quixotic search for language capable of salvation. The paradoxical impulse of Lauterbach’s project is to construct, as she believes Emerson constructed, “an optimism” “from personal grief and public dismay.” This underlying optimism is the surprise of Under the Sign and accounts for its moments of uplift. However qualified or shorn of sentiment, Lauterbach’s idea of radical caring inheres in such moments: in the face of woe, she does not leave us hopeless to respond or silenced by sorrow, nor does she commiserate much. But she does make poems, and offer descriptions of her aspirations for them, that show how the choice-making required in art can foster a sense of agency that inoculates against apathy.
Under the Sign employs a characteristically high degree of compositional risk, reinforcing the sense that the poet’s optimism is not just surprising but hard won. Lauterbach’s work has always been difficult or, rather, strategically complicating. She strives for poems formed “around the impulse to find out what is going to happen to the poem.” As intended, one finds oneself not so much reading this book as marking its terrain with a trail of breadcrumbs in order to backtrack from some mystery or moment-of-being. Tracking, for instance, the trail—or flight pattern—of Lauterbach’s many images of birds and angels gives some ephemeral purchase on her poems’ thought-transgressions and multidirectional progress:
turn toward the missed
like an angel on a fence.
I mean a bird, a bird
in prose. The spun ordeal
arises . . . .
Veet! Veet! The blue jay’s yell
is hollow the way that light blinds.
Cat is spared from angel . . . .
Cat plays with dead bird . . . .
Cat waits until dark to go out
(“Enigma of the Cat”)
(“Triptych (Van Eyck)”)
I saw a pair of eagles
from the train. The train trains on.
They, their sitting.
Night: longer than their perch.
We: gathered and copious. . . .
The eagles sit at the edge of the river.
(“Night News with Fake Zebra”)
She speaks slant
lines only the birds hear.
These and other samplings hearken back to earlier Lauterbach poems that conflate the activities of birds and angels with art making. (The last excerpt also brings Emily Dickinson into play.) The final half of “Configuration of One,” from her 1979 Many Times, But Then, typifies one such conflation:
And I told someone the reason I thought
I like green so much is because
I was once a bird. “An owl,” he said.
Some people have said I was
in Italy during the time of the Medici
but I think it was earlier, back
when Giotto was pressing angels into
flat chapel walls. When you came
into the room last night I was that again.
If we grant, as “he” does here, and as the authorial speaker affirms, that she—Lauterbach’s avian avatar?—is an angel-owl-fresco “pressed into” art’s being or service, we grant the poet her essential owlishness. If we note the owl’s root association with wisdom and allow the playful spirit of an enterprise that finds “the word gag sitting inside of the word engagement” and “narrativity (which carries nativity within),” we find owl inside knowledge. These associations play out, and off, repeated tropes—darkness, light, the past, field, peel, sky—all of which can be interdependently tracked alongside her seraphim and birds. Lauterbach’s knowledge-inspiriting owl is predatory, nocturnal, surveiling, and alert; it is angelic, backward-facing, head-spinning, and fierce. It harbingers change. In our age of rapid transition, Lauterbach embodies change in “the astonishment” that is language and registers the attenuations that threaten our privacy, solitude, and personhood.
But what of the “sign” under which she balances “language on this tightrope” of her optimism? The cover photo suggests the import of the title: an enormous Norwegian dirigible makes the people under it appear ant- or script-like compared to the blimp and the austere white landscape. She invites us to see
writing as the permeable edge between inward meditation and outward connectivity; in a sense about that, pulse and elastic flicker of the subject-object dyad that defines acts of being, reading, listening. These are acts of delicacy and attention, to allow for an opening, to let something unknown in, let it combine with what is already there. How else do we change? How else love?
For all Lauterbach’s unabashed Continentalism (attuned to Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari), she is foremost a poet of America, land where Hindenburgs blow up, Dickinson haunts, Whitman’s hot grasses blow, and—to most—God-un-damned Emerson is a heretic.
Judged under these sentinels—and others from Galileo to Guillaume Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein to Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell to John Ashbery—Under the Sign lives up to its pedigree and daring. In “Some Elements of the Poem,” we learn of “Emerson’s essay / ‘Circles,’ in which, it seemed to me, // O is a frequently repeated / soundscape.” Lauterbach’s “I” wagers that what she overhears in Emerson
might be a vestigial
trace of this complex arena of sound sense
which I think in the new technological
dispensation is falling away from our shared
“Some Elements of the Poem” ends with the desire to set “All the singular figures / in motion, not touching, a pattern of trust // away from the broken authority / of the hierarchical, away from the one.” Her movement away from “the one” is toward an opening for “people only.” This idea of a collective, plural, yet individuated consciousness surfaces as “total growths of the soul” at the close of another poem, the masterful “Song of the O (Emerson “Circles).” Individual people in previous guises have been more dispiriting, uninterested as mostly “we” are in soul-engendering insight. As the speaker claims in “Enigma of the Cat”: “No one cares what you / say unless you say / the information. / No one cares / what you care about / unless it is / the information / turned toward / a vocabulary / as if written.”
Since “no one” cares, Lauterbach asserts that the only available ethical response is to espouse a vocabulary of uselessness. The electronic era has brought great urgency to this determination because the binary ones and zeros by which information gets conveyed—and the two-dimensional, sense-depriving devices by which we receive them—are rendering us quite literally out of touch. Without touch—or with touching of only of the most mediated, isolating, and self-pleasuring sort—we are in real danger of not being able to read one another or to respond to all that we—for worse and better—have wrought. Lauterbach is “anxious”
that our sense of each other will be denuded of the spontaneous ensemble of minute readings—facial expressions, hand gestures, vocal inflection, smells—which until now have informed how we distinguish, for example, those we come to love or admire from those we fear or detest.
If we cannot discern friend from foe, then we become susceptible to—and traffic in—denatured language that collapses our most distinguishing differences in ways that corrupt or imperil. Clean-living, liberty-loving us begins to resemble dirty, terror-toting them when our drones kill their civilians and our leaking oils and carbons foul everyone’s water and sky. Lauterbach fears that, given this reality, what is at stake is the capacity to give a damn.
For poets and artists, Lauterbach suggests, the stakes are still higher, because it is through art that we instill or reinvigorate our sense of agency. Without it there is nothing much we can do about reality but binge-watch its simulacra from a distancing screen—for “to make something is to care for it” up close. Yet no act is more imbued with radical caring than that of making something—a poem, say—“that no one is waiting for, no one actively wants.” By her own definition, poetry—any art—arrives “through the agency of care.” How could we beg to differ with this owlish writer? About Whitman, another rara avis who cared profoundly for us all, Lauterbach has pointed out that although he belongs to America, “America now is not [his].” Perhaps under-the-gun America now is Lauterbach’s—if not under her sign, then beneath a shielding wing.