Ann Lauterbach’s tenth and most recent collection, Spell, navigates process and change, and therefore makes much of the observed: the seen and the heard, the been-done and being-done. Its first poem, “Pause,” opens with these lines: “The arc of distance is partial. A / continuum belated us, like the slow-motion / spit of a shaman.” That first sentence is serviceable, if opaque. “Distances” can have “arcs” I suppose; we live on a curved and finite world, so all earthly distances are “arced” and “partial.” Translating the following clause proves more difficult: “A continuum belated us” means, literally, “a range postponed us,” which means nothing. The next image of a shaman’s spit is original and nearly arresting, but the spit could just as easily have been a biker’s or an anesthesiologist’s. The shaman is here to signify enchantment, a quality innate to good poetry. The accretion of sibilants in “spit of a shaman,” suggests a whispered spell, perhaps. The rest of the stanza proceeds well enough, its closing line impressive in its direct—if obvious—reflection on the indifference of time: “The sun set into its given, not prone to regret or sorrow.”
But something awful happens in the next stanza, where “A quotidian logic” tries to “animate the scene.” What here is quotidian? The “leaves yellowing in their / dotage”? The metaphor fails not on account of its literal impossibility; flights of fancy and the Romantic impulse have birthed many a useful symbol, so that, in deft enough hands, the grandeur of God might become an “ooze of oil,” and rightly so. Unlike Hopkins’s oil, leaves are a tired image. Leaves “in their dotage” less so, but absent irony, humor, or any recognition of the image’s incongruity, the scaffolding falls, and the reader is left to gloss a platitude. What Lauterbach means by “leaves yellowing in their / dotage,” as far as I can tell, has something to do with the wistful, hokey notion that trees are the shepherds of nature’s wisdom, and the changing of their leaves signifies the passage of time, suggesting that these wise, old trees grow old and feeble, too. That’s rather elementary stuff, and doesn’t describe how the seasons operate on a literal or allegorical level, as deciduous trees eventually regain their leaves when winter gives way to spring.
“Pause” is a bad poem, but it’s “Fern Hill” compared to some of what follows. The first sentence in “Jury” (“Stale bondage: history’s messed-up parade / of the undone”) achieves a banality matched only by a later poem, “Nominal”:
Through the bare branch, a flutter.
I thought a flag was an immense wing. Sky sliced through with long clouds. The city is an avalanche; all torn down. I have a bridge in mind; a river.
River, clouds, sky, wing, branch.
Flag. City. Avalanche. Bridge. Mind.
Four sentences provoke a catalogue of their constituent parts, ten very ordinary nouns. I suspect that Lauterbach hopes to draw attention to the bare elements of language, so that “river, clouds, sky” and the rest may be considered as “things in themselves.” There is nothing new about this idea, and nothing inherently wrong with it. The speaker is humoring her imagination, but there’s little here that I’d call poetry: no “feats of association,” no illumination of the everyday. Is that final “Mind” supposed to act as punctuating reminder that the observed world exists between the reader’s ears? Simple notions are the stuff of poetry, but this one seems an exercise in self-importance. I get the sense that the speaker thinks her sen- sory observations so profound that they become poetic in themselves. Thus the catalogue, in all its vanity and vapid indulgence. Lauterbach still delivers the occasional good line. I like the rhythm and insistence of “Ghost being no thing, no instance, no bug” (“Verdi”), and the accuracy of “Recursive, in wave patterns, rings of hair and bone” (“Reliquary”). But good lines can’t salvage poems. I wanted so badly to like “Palm,” a poem that reduces a lover’s recurrence in the speaker’s dreams to the figure of a single, polished penny: “You keep turning up in my dreams / like a penny, worth less than the old, / but shinier. I am glad to hold you.” That’s a nice touch, but whatever there was to admire in the poem’s thirteen lines shatters when Lauterbach’s speaker evokes an “unrequited bliss field,” which might be the worst description of a bedroom I have ever read. I can go along with “unrequited bliss”; the failures of romance and physical intimacy are accessible to anyone who has navigated adolescence. “Field” trips me up; is this the kind of field where, say, soybeans grow, or is it a mathematic set? Either way, the phrase strains. One virtue of this collection is that, since it lacks any cogent attempt at humor — and it could be that its “jokes” go over my head — it also avoids the snarky, underhanded moralizing that per- vades so much contemporary verse. This collection doesn’t tell its reader what to do so much as it tries (and frequently fails) to articulate meaning—not specific meanings, but those with a capital-m Meaning, relational thinking manifest as Platonic Ideal. And Meaning, as dreamt of in Lauterbach’s philosophy, often fails in its effort to ascribe definitions to a world more given to ambiguity. From the poet herself: “I began to give up the use of classical syntax, the logic of cause and effect, of an assumed relation between subject and object, after my sister died. The narrative as story had been ruptured once and for all; I wanted the gaps to show.” That’s a thoughtful articulation of how loss operates on one’s art, which suggests to me that Lauterbach is an attentive, intelligent poet. It’s the poetry itself that isn’t particularly intelligent.