Spell by Ann Lauterbach

Spell is Ann Lauterbach’s tenth book of poetry. On the front cover is a silhouette of a crow’s head, which William Kentridge has drawn on a page from a dictionary, using a brush loaded with dense black ink. By bringing image and word into inseparable proximity, Kentridge’s drawing calls up the question: what is the relation between word and thing?

Visually, the crow’s silhouette sits between the title above and the author’s name below, with the profile of their hand-drawn letters echoing stencils and typeface. Turn the book over and you see that the crow extends to the back cover. In fact, you could say that the front cover (crow’s head) is figurative and the back cover (crow’s tail feathers) is abstract. Other than Kentridge’s striking image, there are no blurbs beckoning the reader to discover what truths lie between the covers. Either you begin reading and fall under its spell, or you don’t.

The first line of the opening poem, “Pause,” reads: “The arc of distance is partial.” The last line of the last poem, “The Poet,” reads: “The basket marked the poem rides out into the encrypted, unreadable sea.” Between these two lines, between the ”distance [that] is partial” and the “encrypted, unreadable sea,” the poem and poet must make their way, knowing that whatever is expressed is partial in every sense of the word. How do you get outside of yourself and your own views? This is one of the questions Lauterbach returns to in Spell.

The book, which contains around 135 pages of poetry, consists of 55 poems, nearly half of which are less than a page. There are poems after works by W. G. Sebald, Lucretius, and Ovid; responses to Balthus’s painting, La Chambre (1954); Verdi’s penultimate opera Otello, based on Shakespeare’s play, Othello; and Claudia Rankine’s books, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and “her acclaimed 2014 Citizen,” as Lauterbach notes in her poem, “Wounded Evidence”; as well as a “Hymn,” a “Partita,” a “Spell” and an “Invocation.”

Interspersed among the poems are 13 prose dialogs between “Evening” and an unnamed “I,” which is clearly both the poet and not the poet. “Fact,” the first dialog, begins:

–Hello, Evening.
–Hello, What’s up?
–Just now a jet streamed across the sky, making a high, loud whine; my
hands tingled with dread.
–It’s a sound that causes alarm in many. Your experience on 9/11,
living near Ground zero, will always make this ripping roar one of
terror for you. I have it, too, from time to time, with thunderstorms. It’s
as if all the beating hearts of the dead have gathered.

Later, in response to the poet, “Evening” declares: ”Nobody mourns me. I come and I go, I do not age, or get sick, or die.” Among other things, “Evening” represents change and the indefinable, akin to the “unreadable sea” upon which the poem is placed in a basket.

The poet’s response opens up a paradoxical space in which this and the other dialogs unfold: “And yet, you mark time, day after day.” Within this space, in which time has collapsed, “Evening” and the poet discuss many diverse subjects as well as veer off in unexpected directions.

The subjects of the dialogs include “a small still-life painting by Chardin, Seville Orange, Silver Goblet, Apples, Pear, and Two Bottles (1750), that [she] saw a few days ago […]”; the writings of Hannah Arendt, whom Lauterbach views as a touchstone, “a frequent voice for those of us who are trying to find a way from the past to the future”; memories of childhood and the different associations that can be stirred up by a word, event, or thing.

There is an easygoing banter between “Evening” and the poet, as if they are old friends, which in a sense they are. As defined by Lauterbach, the dialog can go anywhere at any time, with one voice leading and the other following or changing direction. Each of the dialogs ends with a dictionary entry for the word or words used in the title:

(“fact (n.) 1530s, ‘action, anything done,’ especially evil deed, from Latin factum, ‘an event, occurrence, deed, achievement,’ […]”).

Lauterbach is fascinated by a word’s etymology, and how traces of its history remain in its current usage.

Ann Lauterbach (photo: © Marina van Zuylen, 2018, courtesy Penguin Random House)

What should be clear by now is that Lauterbach wants to bring every kind of writing into her work: dialog, essay, letter, diary, lyric, prose, list, philosophical investigation, dictionary entry, memory, fiction, dream, and citation. In her determined expansion of the field of poetry, she stands apart from other poets engaged in avant-garde writing, for a number of reasons. First, she rejects irony as a framing device in the exploration of the limits of language and its capacity for representation. There is never a flippant moment, which could be seen as coming from a privileged position. Second, she rejects literalism (“Facts aren’t the same as persons.”)

In her dialog, “Paradigm,” Lauterbach writes: “to know how or if thought, when it is expressed in written language, bears a relation to the activity of worldness, or being in the world.” Wary of naming, she investigates the relation of word to world and dream. The dichotomy of transparency and opacity that is often applied to poetry crumbles when it comes to Lauterbach’s work: she is interested instead in what connections can be established between divergent discourses — between levels of transparency and opacity, and the contexts that can arise out of these proximities.

As she writes, in “Paradigm,” of her reading of the French philosopher Jacques Rancière:

I think he wants to suggest or possibly create links between politics and aesthetics, to insert or assert our capacity to imagine and create into our sense of politics.

The relationship between politics and aesthetics has long been a preoccupation for poets.

As Lauterbach sees it, one problem is that there are “young artists [who] are beginning to think like bean counters and rationalists,” when “these realities can be addressed only by immersion in an entwined animation of knowledge with imagination.” She opens her dialog, “Phenomenon,” with this: “Why does it take so long for knowledge to inform behavior?”

One can read the 13 dialogs as a running commentary on the poems and on poetry. They form the book’s spine. By allowing different points of view to be expressed in each of these staged encounters, Lauterbach is able to turn a subject over, examine it closely as well as speculate wildly. She introduces quotes from books she is reading, remembers moments from earlier in her life, as well as ruminates on the relation of word to phenomenon (changing reality). It seems to me that Lauterbach’s dialogs, which have precedents in the dialogs between self and soul of Andrew Marvell and William Butler Yeats, is something she has invented out of necessity: she wants to expand the possibilities of poetry so that it can embrace every kind of connotative and denotative discourse, while being about language itself.

Lauterbach’s poems are “entwined animation[s] of knowledge with imagination.” On one hand, she is continuing, enlarging, and examining Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s belief that poetry is the imagination working on the objects of life and nature. At the same time, she disagrees with his assertion that: “A poem is that species of composition which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth […].” In an age dominated by literalism and an insistence on facts, what possibilities can the “imagination” summon into words?

This is the complicated spatial construct that Lauterbach’s poems define and inhabit. It is a space that is both mental and physical, made of all manner of stuff, from memories of childhood to what happens when you don’t know where the words will take you. This is a book of misgivings, spells, invocations, dialogs, commentaries, songs, and ruminations on philosophy, poetry, art, and politics. It embraces the abstruse and the transparent, often in the same work. The language is sinuous and dazzling. There is so much going on in Spell that I have not processed it all. I am still mulling it over. That seems to me the strongest kind of work, the kind you don’t get to the bottom of in two sittings.

Spell (2018) by Ann Lauterbach is published by Penguin Random House and is available on Amazon and other online retailers.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

2 replies on “Ann Lauterbach Expands the Possibilities of Poetry”

  1. In this terrifically intelligent review of Lauterbach’s latest, something sticks out by virtue of it being missing. Yau starts out by vitally noticing Kittredge’s cover, and after that virtually no mention of AL’s implicit and deeply learned conversation with contemporary art and its making. As far back as Jasper Johns, it unavoidably informs this work and all her work.

  2. Considering the paragraph that begins with „What should be clear by now is that Lauterbach wants to bring every kind of writing into her work”, it is clear that this has something to do with, at the very least, conceptual poetry, yet conceptualism has become, around John Yau’s corners, quite a dirty word. It may not seem very necessary to point it out in order to read this book, but the lineage is there. Of course, the problem is that the “frontliners” of conceptual writing were ironic, “coming from a privileged position,” and claimed to be “against” expression, therefore “literalist” to a certain extent, and so the conceptual movement has been seen merely as a decadent celebration of neoliberalism… But who investigated more knows that conceptualism has been about critique too.

    Or maybe this is just my pet peeve, since a couple of years ago I have done “A Bibliography of Conceptual Writing”, yet the movement was already turning un-P.C. and therefore something to be left as “history”…

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