Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
If in Time: Selected Poems 1975–2000
Penguin, $18 (paper)
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
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.
Also, perhaps, maybe
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.
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.
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 fromClamor, "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
the waxed carnation's cribbed flounce
shade distinctly wound among new brooms
panache of the ever-tan September
And so what is said is at an angle
over the floor from which the soliloquy drafts
upwards, as if restitution
could 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.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.