Or To Begin Again
Ann Lauterbach
Penguin, $18 (paper)

“Can the Real return as history?” Ann Lauterbach asks in “Figures Move (Saint Petersburg),” from her latest collection, Or to Begin Again. “Ruin floods into images of new ruin and disappears. / Again! cries the child, Again! / Once upon a time.”

This question of endings and beginnings, of ruin begetting ruin, of narrative fashioning narrative, is not only metaphoric or simply literary. Nor is the question merely rhetorical after the events of September 2001, events that eventually plunged the United States into what have become wars seemingly without end and, on the other end of the spectrum, propelled us toward the election of Barack Obama and all the changes that election both signaled and produced. Despair and hope mark our time in, it would seem, equal measure.

The poems of Ann Lauterbach’s Or to Begin Again probe the difficult questions—ethical, emotional, political, and even spiritual—of accounting for despair while allowing for it to become something more than a mechanism pressing the death drive forward. How do any of us, Lauterbach’s poems ask, begin again without turning our backs on catastrophic events, events that, like a bad dream, seem to continue to shape and define the present and our sense of a possible—or impossible—future? How does one respond to the world, then, in the aftermath of the aftermath?

Lauterbach’s response provides neither solace nor an occasion to share righteous indignation. She has a sense of hope, but she wants it to be something more than sentimental naïveté—otherwise, from the hope we seek, we may get simply the despair we deserve. And this is where poetry comes in. In “After the Fall,” an essay from her The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience, which wrestles with the prospect of writing after September 11, Lauterbach insists, “Poetry continues to elucidate the vital topography between individual and historical accounting.” The fraught interrelation of despair and hope underwriting the attempts at such accounting has long been part of Lauterbach’s subject, and this statement of her poetics is crucial to understanding her latest work and the terrain of conflicting values and literary aspirations in which it locates itself.

The attacks on the Twin Towers continue to sit heavily on the poet, as they do on many of us. Still, Lauterbach’s task transcends any particular historical moment; it applies to them all, to the ever-present temptations to despair (and misconceived hope). “Or to begin again / in the miraculous scale of the small nouns, / their mischief and potential,” Lauterbach writes in the title poem, positioned near the end of the book. The “small nouns,” it seems, provide a way of locating oneself, and yet, as she also writes, “I had wanted a location but had become embattled / in a zone of supposition and indirection.” How one finds the way to voice history despite being caught between supposition and indirection, miracle and mischief, is the task both the title poem and the book set for themselves:

Singing along with the anthem
they distributed coupons to the rest
to redeem, solace for those who do not
begin but stay back in the infrastructure
of the singular: what you said, what I said, before
the fact. Were we to be among those to be counted
one by one, like days? Greeted by our host?
In which language? And what were we meant to
carry away, down the road a bit, into the rest?
Light strays across the dry grasses.

Where does the whole give way to the individual, the poem asks, and vice-versa? The difference between “what you said” and “what I said” forms, grammatically, the conceptual infrastructure of what is singular or individual, and Lauterbach reveals the singularities’ conflict with the general to be part of the same paradox of asking where one thing ends and another begins. The ways we ask such questions, the language we use, help determine—some might say overdetermine—the answers we find. The queries and abstractions in the passage lead to the concrete particular of “light” that passes “across the dry grasses,” and in this image the light unites the individual grasses—we cannot help but hear an echo of Whitman’s “leaves of grass”—within its gaze.

This conflict between the forces that determine which direction we will cast our lot—one or many, hope or despair, abstract or concrete—is part of what makes us human. Whether we are creatures of doubt or of faith, and whether endings and beginnings are learned grammars for perceiving phenomena, is a metaphysical one, and unlikely to find resolution before the next historical catastrophe, the next milestone marking some “before” and “after,” whatever it may be.

• • •

Halfway through Or to Begin Again is an extended, surrealist narrative poem entitled “Alice in the Wasteland.” There is no small irony in Eliot’s poem having signaled the end—and an extremely violent end at that—of the Victorian Age that produced Alice and her misadventures. Lauterbach’s center-justified poem places Alice in that end, with Alice engaging a disembodied voice in philosophical discussions about the nature of language, existence, the counterfactual, and perception: “You probably should fill out a form. / Why? / Because by responding you will be disclosing to the merchant that you meet these / criteria. / What criteria? / For understanding that which makes no sense for you. / What are they? / They are, for example, what crosses the path at the / place of form. / Alice found this inscrutable. You mean if I walk along the path and come to another / path that crosses it, that is where form is? / Sort of. / Alice walked on some way until she came to a path that crossed the one she was on. / I do not see any form, she said. / You are too empirical. / But I have no empire, Alice replied truthfully.”

The poem, by turns witty and profound, presents a serio-comic game both about and within the philosophy of language. Beyond that game, however, it demonstrates that poetry’s knowledge is not a stable one, but arises through the community of open questions. The reader cannot simply nod in agreement with what is said here. There are no easy outs, no opportunities for emotional or political self-satisfaction. In this way, Lauterbach’s poetics is surprisingly pragmatist at its core. Its truths are not given, but are claims made, with words acting not as answers but as indicators, signs of further work to be done.

The poems are as challenging as the paradoxes they confront, offering endless opportunities for thinking, for responding to our own responsibilities.

Lauterbach’s poems are consistently erudite and difficult, marking her debt to a specifically philosophical strain of American literature. Increasingly, the influence of Wallace Stevens—which shaped the couplets, tropes, and images of Lauterbach’s earlier work in such books as Before Recollection and Clamor—has given way to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, evident in her desire for transcendence and her skepticism as to the possibilities, or even desirability, of such transcendence. “Permanence is a word of degrees,” Emerson argues in his essay “Circles.” “Every thing is medial. . . . Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series.” That is, beginnings and endings perpetuate each other’s cause. Thus in “Lines of Flight,” Lauterbach writes, “Cold and colder still / instilled so that dream and not-dream coincide / as a nearly perfect coil.” The unity and interdependence of the imagined and the real—or the ideal and the material, depending on what one takes “not-dream” to mean—is, in this estimation, “cold and colder” comfort.

But who is making this claim? How do we make sense of its chilly idealism? In a “Note to the Reader” tucked into the acknowledgments page, Lauterbach states that she is “interested in differences between spoken utterance and written text.” The collision and collusion of these voices frame the poet’s formal choices throughout the work, most notably in the asyntactical, seemingly indeterminate lines and sentences that float free of a specific, embodied site that might utter such lines.

The words are abstract, but thus they become their own particularities, their own substances, their own actions. In Lauterbach’s poems, we see the enactment of the conflict between despair and hope, deeply real and deeply felt, through the words’ refusal to cohere into one unequivocal articulation. Or to Begin Again thinks and feels its way into the complexities of experience and both wields and questions the tools we use to affirm our choices.

The poems are therefore as challenging as the paradoxes they confront, and those challenges offer endless opportunities for thinking, for responding to our own responsibilities. In a prose stanza from the long poem “Nothing to Say,” Lauterbach writes, “So not to shut the story down, close the book, to let the threads mingle into patterns impossible to dislodge without dismantling the whole fabric, and visible only in certain lights, at a certain distance.” The references to patterns, threads, and narrative recall the etymology of text, from Latin, meaning to weave. The poem may also bring to mind the idea that the Fates spun threads that determined life narratives, forming a book of life.

Or to Begin Again engages politics, history, and narrative, all the contexts from which meaning arises, meaning that needs grounding if it is to facilitate response, communication, community. Still, the possibilities of meaningfulness, and the conflicts of interpretation those possibilities inevitably produce, reveal that such grounding can also provide the means for destabilizing what sometimes gets mistaken for truth.

The book’s title suggests that there is a choice to be made, and that we are in the process of making it. On the leading edge of “Or,” there is a silence or absence, an unarticulated possibility, a decision that stands arrested, pointing in two unresolved directions. Yet the fragmentary title, entering from a silence or absence, is in itself an enactment of the decision that is, in a sense, always already made, as if to say that we have no choice, since endings come and beginnings begin without our willing them to. This beginning again, so definitive a symptom of Modernism, is also the recurring motion of trauma, in which experiences end only to begin again, and cannot be stopped.