Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Under the Sign

By Ann Lauterbach

Reviewed By Benjamin Landry

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Have you a word,
dear instructor, for this?

So ends “To the Given,” one of the concluding poems in Ann Lauterbach’s latest collection, Under the Sign. It’s a fair question to direct at most poetry, and particularly Lauterbach’s work. The answer, of course, is no: poetry is an expression of experience, and the best poems resist summation. As the furthest distillation of a feeling, poems like Lauterbach’s demand that the reader inhabit the world of the poem. Any further explanation entails the drawbacks of all translation work: the reader, the critic, articulates while moving further away from the original.

On the face of it, Under the Sign is concerned with a number of familiar phenomena and events—the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Newtown massacre and the implications of Emerson’s Transcendentalism are all taken up and explored in these thorough ruminations. The work of Jan van Eyck, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Marilynne Robinson are among the dozens of (mostly Western European) citations afoot in this collection, but they are merely the occasions for poems that are really about the difficulties of articulation, of participating in culture while sustaining one’s vision. Take, for instance, “Zero & A,” the seven-part poem that ostensibly tackles the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; here is the third section, in its entirety:

The irrational disorder   usually
biographical spill
unintelligible quotient of the real
abstracted through love
and such invitations taken to mean
the con-
sequences
sequential
humilities of virtue

revealed while awaiting execution
in the eyes of the law:
trick.

The “biographical spill,” a phrase repeated elsewhere in the poem, indicates that the broken, gushing wellhead at the dangerously remote depth of over a kilometer below the ocean’s surface is a stand-in for the perception of the individual “abstracted through love.”  Love itself is a “law” mediating between the individuals involved. Under such extreme conditions, how can the perception of one in love be other than a “trick”? That Lauterbach uses the language of particular disaster to unpack such ordinary human concerns is a testament to the range of her intellect and the humility of her understanding of poetry’s place in the story of human endeavor.

While a poem like “Zero & A” primarily succeeds on the strength of its content, Lauterbach truly shines in poems that are most alive to formal possibilities.  In “Glyph,” for example, she gives us a series of plangent couplets that—in their end-stopped construction—operate like gentle openings and closings:

…A book arrived in the mail I did not order.
The leaves, many of them, were falling.

Perhaps, I thought, it was sent just in case.
It was, she said, her favorite color.

The dog barked.  He was new to the neighborhood.
Fine, I said, have it your way.

He said he loved small things.
A book arrived in the mail I did not order…

Try as we might to construct a cohesive narrative, our momentum is continually interrupted by new voices with their mutually exclusive concerns. Only the irregular repetition of the book’s unexpected arrival gives us a sense of continuity—of assurance, perhaps, that a unified speaker is possible. This is, of course, akin to our typical obsessions. Reiteration is what passes for closure. By rearranging gaps and questions in new orders, we hope something will shake loose and a pattern of meaning will emerge. This is what great poetry does: make literal what is generally unexpressed. There is religious—or at least metaphysical—weight to these simple lines, mostly thanks to their ingenious formal arrangement. Lauterbach has garnered a reputation for difficult work, and to some extent this is deserved. She us unafraid of conceptual rigor and wades confidently into Deleuzean semiotics, for instance. But the materials of her poetry are approachable enough. Her language is simple.  After reading several poems, one becomes accustomed to Lauterbach’s use of fragments, which are usually the visible consequent of implied subjects and implied introductory clauses. The rhythm begins to take over and becomes itself a useful logic for receiving the poem.

The most remarkable section of this tripartite collection is only notionally poetic. “Task: To Open” is the second section, and it is a lyric essay in 41 short chapters. The section—and all of Under the Sign, really—takes its inspiration from Emerson’s “Circles” as it investigates the position of the individual as a conduit of culture. In Emerson, circles operate as the concentric ripples that spread out from a disturbance in a body of water. They represent our ever-expanding frames of perception. Emerson, therefore, enjoins us to face experience with complete openness, itself a circle (the open eye, the open ear, etc.). In “Task: To Open,” Lauterbach wonders aloud what “openness” and “experience” mean in a world governed by virtual interactions. Does ‘opening’ an email entail the same engagement and consequences as ‘opening’ a letter once did? The materiality of making “a painting, a poem: making or being in love; reading: these open time from the prison of the clock” (54). Lauterbach suspects that virtual experiences—in particular social media (she mentions twitter as an extreme example)—allow possibilities of radical self-construction, yet fail to “open” time in the same way, since the moments of production and reception are so fully disassociated (at least in reading, the physical book links the author and reader by touch and not sight alone). This may read like a distinctly old-guard concern, but Lauterbach knows that the answer is—rather than retrenchment—an expansion of definitions. Just when she seems to be closing down, she tries a new type of openness. Chapter 14, for instance, ends rather ominously: “What, then, is the relation of information to knowledge? Is knowledge the way information becomes meaningful?” Chapter 15 then begins with a mantra-like line: “Open: dilation greeted by a perceptual space.” It turns out that ordinary mortality is the only limit to this openness, and here, we recognize that Lauterbach, for all her intellectual flights, is a poet among the people, concerned with universals. In her work, we recognize ourselves.

Published: 1/28/2014
Benjamin Landry is a Meijer Post-MFA Fellow at the University of Michigan and the author of Particle and Wave (Chicago). His poems have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Subtropics and elsewhere. His essays and reviews have appeared in Agni, Boston Review, The Rumpus and elsewhere.