Book Review

The many doors within Ann Lauterbach’s dazzling eleventh volume, Door (Penguin, 2023), open onto mythic dreamscapes and echoic worlds of vibrant sound. Seven poems in the volume share the name “DOOR,” and almost every page returns to this image, as though knocking and knocking at the various available meanings that could open.

In a conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on LitHub’s First Draft podcast, Lauterbach describes the doors throughout as a “kind of architecture,” a series of rooms that lead into one another via “entrances and exits and entrances and exits.” Sometimes, the door is just a door, opening onto a reflection about the everyday unknowability of one’s neighbors: “I don’t know who lives in these houses / with pastel doors . . . Whoever heard of a lavender / door in the middle of winter.” At other times, Lauterbach seeks out wildly associational meanings within the door’s frame: “Is Door a wound?” And again, “How to name a sound? Call it Door.” Door is an alluring gateway to imagination and literature, a portal between the dead and the living:

Now I will stare at the spines of books.
At the spines, and the hinges, and the knobs.
The spines of books hold a chorus
singing from the dead to the living,
and from the living back to the dead.

These endlessly recursive doors are architectural and also ecological. In the sonnet “BEE,” Lauterbach’s speaker shares the perspective of the eponymous pollinator: “Must allow permeable inclusions.” A capacity for permeability and a sensitivity to entanglement are central to the book. The door may or may not open. It may be locked or it may expose a threat. But the fact that so many doors exist sustains a structural insistence on the possibility for connection, interpenetration, revelation.

In short lines and language at once spare and capacious, the first poem of the volume, “DOOR (WORLD FILLS UP),” enters a vastness:

World fills up
imperious pace

vagrant matter
into the humming

pooled at the feet
what soul went down

Both the general nouns (“world,” “matter”) and open-ended gestures (“fills up,” “went down”) evoke a dreamlike identification. They refuse to resolve into a settled image. There’s movement and sound here, a soul descending. A threshold “thrown open   crossed.” Matter—suggestive both of physical substance and metaphysical weight, that which matters—joins the humming. This is a mythic space, populated by allegory and archetypal images.

And while Door includes a range of tonal registers—some of the poems are conversational and narrative, some ekphrastic, some elegiac—the weight of myth is always close by. Characters become types: the Fool, the Magician, a girl “holding a bag filled with constellations.” After an anecdote about a cat door, Lauterbach widens the scope: “There is something called / a transcendent table.” In a scene at the pharmacy, we are presented with the questions, “Have you noticed things in general seem torn? // Can they be mended? By what or whom?” The effect is one of the everyday shimmering with broader cultural resonance, of an individual who carries the collective in her cells and dreams.

In “ETHOS,” one of the more essayistic poems in the collection, Lauterbach crystallizes the way the mythic flashes through and illuminates the mundane:

In high school, a teacher introduced the idea of an ethos.
It was difficult to comprehend. What was an
ethos? Our teacher, Mr. Cooper, spent some time
defining ethos. We were reading The Odyssey,
so I suppose he was talking about ancient Greece,
its ethos. Are we at the end of an ethos? I am
not but we are. But if we includes me, then I am.

In a deceptively simple memory from high school, we encounter Homer, and by extension the history of Western civilization, in all its problematic splendor. Suddenly, the final two lines of the stanza leap forth—a brilliant progression through which Lauterbach performs identification and disidentification, stepping back and then forth in complex dance. The enjambment of “I am / not but we are” reiterates this shifting between acceptance and refusal of a cultural burden. The repetition of “I am” at the conclusion of successive lines underscores how profoundly the possibility of existence itself is bound up with this question. “If we includes me, then I am.” This conditional statement re-sounds Descartes’ famous dictum within a context of communal responsibility, interdependence, and mutual implication. The singular self is entirely dependent on the collective, and that collective is crumbling.

Lauterbach’s philosophical statement has a particular political resonance in this time of global climate change when collective actions implicate individual lives and only acceptance of collective responsibility can provide healing. The speaker’s performance of ambivalence, the sense of fraught identification that these lines so brilliantly and succinctly capture, encapsulates some of the most urgent questions that climate change poses to the social fabric: What does the end of an ethos mean for the individual and collective categories of “we” and “I”? Does identification with “the end” constitute acceptance of it from a position of defeat, or an acknowledgement of it from a position of activism?

This political-philosophical problem poses a challenge for the lyric as well. Amid the shifting “I” and “you” of the lyric poem, Lauterbach troubles the capacity of the “we” to accommodate an “I,” even while she seeks out the capaciousness of the lyric voice. The poem never finds answers to the questions it raises, but concludes with more questions: “We see and / we say, but what do we do? This question / sits, like a huge stone on top of modernity’s ethos.”

In poems scaled to vast questions of ethos and archetype, the door carries profound mythic resonances. “Went through, turned, looked back,” begins a poem called “INGREDIENTS,” with a backward glance that recalls Orpheus as well as Lot’s wife. Lauterbach’s speaker crosses the threshold. And the ingredients in the recipe themselves “come through,” as Paul Hollywood says. (The speaker quips, “What would Paul / Hollywood make of my poem-pie?”) Even that which enters the body as food carries flavors that must pass the doors of the senses in order to reach the self’s conscious awareness, and in this way each of the poem’s ingredients is a door within a door within a door. The witty enjambment after “Paul” asks us, too, to consider the submerged religious imagery here. For “Paul” makes several references to doors, from 1 Corinthians 16:9—“For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries”—to Colossians 4:3—“Withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance.” Both of these lines feel relevant to the poem, the sense of a mystical portal being opened despite the presence of adversaries, and the door of utterance, which is the voice of the poem. The speaker says:


went through hoping to greet you
on the dark side. Moon?
Hello, I might have called into the sky.
Hello? It might have been a question.

This greeting or question hurled out to the dark sky is suggestive of prayer, while simultaneously posing a challenge to belief. Each sentence is subjunctive, conditional, carrying doubt in one arm and hope, the desire for connection, in the other. Elsewhere, Lauterbach quotes from scripture directly:

The Said closes, is closing, has closed the door.
John said, I am the Door. Who closed it?

And who will open it, if it is not shut

Here, Lauterbach emphasizes the door’s capacity to shut out and block. “The Said,” in past tense, evokes authoritative closure, with religious and legalistic overtones.

What does it mean for Lauterbach to evoke scripture, both indirectly and directly, in 2023? One way to approach this question is via her magnificent volume of collected prose, whose title, The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience (Penguin, 2005) oscillates between secular and religious understandings of the heavens. In the introduction to the book, Lauterbach identifies the tension between belief and skepticism as one of central cultural import:

Perhaps the greatest agon of our time will be understood once again to be the one that animated the Enlightenment, between structures of faith and structures of reason. Surely one of the most profound questions to arise in the wake of September 11th is how to bring an enlightened skepticism into alignment with what William James called “the will to believe.”

Vast and encompassing, Lauterbach’s night sky spans both the secular and the religious, alive to the suggestive multiplicities of words, ideas, and beliefs:

And so “the night sky” is a simple overarching rubric, a way of naming this variation and multiplicity, and to suggest that the way words make sentences and sentences paragraphs is also a kind of constellating, where imagined structures are drawn from an apparently infinite fund: words, stars.

Lauterbach’s constellating capacity is one that crosses genres and invokes a community of interlocutors. Several poems in Door are dedicated to other artists and writers—from the multidisciplinary artist Fia Backström; to the writer, musician, and sound/text performer Michael Ives; to the art historian T. J. Clark. Of course, Lauterbach also has many books of interdisciplinary collaboration with artists, such as Thripsis (1998, with Joe Brainard), A Clown, Some Colors, A Doll, Her Stories, A Song, A Moonlit Cove (1996, with Ellen Phelan), and How Things Bear Their Telling (1990, with Lucio Pozzi). In this vein, many of the poems in Door are ekphrastic, orbiting around and in deep conversation with other works of art. Readers of Lauterbach’s previous books will recognize her practice of placing proper names in parentheses after a poem’s title to indicate that the poem is prompted by an encounter with, say, Giotto, Magritte, or Delacroix.

Even on the level of language itself, Door brims with permeable inclusions. The fabric of these poems is a sensate texture alive to its own music. Through the sonic slippage of puns, obsessive rhyme schemes, and repetitions, these poems reject the logic of reason in favor of sound’s logic. Often, Lauterbach’s speaker will pause to reconsider and re-echo her own language:

What am I doing in these dreary quatrains? It is far too
late for quatrains, even as the word is pleasurable,
with its qua and its trains. I took a train recently, from
there to here, along the river, toward evening. Toward

evening, detached again as a question. Evening?

Like Keats breaking off in “Ode to a Nightingale” to thrill to the resonance of the word forlorn (“Forlorn! the very word is like a bell / to toll me back from thee to my sole self”), the speaker returns to question her own poetic form. But the act of holding the word quatrain in the hand causes it to fall apart—like pieces of fruit—into pleasurable sonic wedges, which then reform, dreamlike. And suddenly, the speaker is riding the quatrain train into evening.

Evening is a verb as well as a noun, which evokes the flattening of language into a symmetrical poetic form. Trains on land may require a flat, even landscape, but the echoic trains of the poetic fancy are not so bounded. The final line breaks off the quatrain’s track into a solitary line that repeats the word “Evening” back as a question. In the playfulness and imaginative potential that inhere in words and times of day, I hear resonances, too, from Lauterbach’s previous book, Spell (Penguin, 2018), which includes a series of philosophical, witty, mystical, and colloquial conversations with evening.

But if in these lines, the beauty of the word “quatrains” provides sensuous pleasure and imaginative escape from a “dreary” poetic form, the sound of language can also open a door into profound suffering. The poem, “DIS,” begins by repeating this disassociated sound: “Footsteps with a hiss attached, dis dis dis, dragging a mutant shadow from which the object has gone.” Disorienting and nightmarish, this line imagines the sound of the prefix as a stumbling step. The negativity of the sound, “dis,” becomes disembodied and atmospheric, disconnected from any word or situation. As the poem continues, a context develops:

They spoke about the disappeared, I recall this; a fleet of awful bodies under moving tarps, a desert, a prairie, some hole in the gutter, some sewer, some track running over hard gravel making the sound of teeth on metal skin.

Rather than a singular disappearance, Lauterbach describes one that includes many bodies and spans many landscapes. Again, a mythic subtext: the city of Dis makes up Lower Hell in the Divine Comedy, spanning the sixth through the ninth circles. This is a context of global displacement, migration, suffering. It is as though suffering’s content has itself been disappeared through the aporia of the word disappeared. The violence is diffuse and perhaps unimaginable, but Lauterbach finds a way in through the hiss of dis. Sound’s door opens impossible connections across culture and situation. Later in the poem, she imagines song as capable of transformative power:

If only I could sing.

If I could sing then my body would escape into the pool of notes which might then arrange themselves as a soul, it has been done, I have heard these transformations as I know you have

Although the speaker distances herself from the ability to sing, she believes in song’s soul-creating power. These lines provide an important framework within with to situate “SONG (UKRAINE),” which similarly uses sound as a way into violence and suffering:

These tears are Wiki-leaks in the cloister
moister than God’s more numerous than fleas
teased onto pillow slips
lips parted with sorrow.

By rhyming the final word of each line with the first word of the next, Lauterbach fashions a sonically claustrophobic atmosphere, like successive chimes of news alerts, evocative of urgency and throbbing tension. The minute connections of these rhymes never add up to a satisfying whole, which approximates war’s illogical logics. As in “DIS,” the song here is “a lament, nothing to do with melody, nothing to do with pleasure.”

But the songlike qualities abide, and it is by rhyming in the face of terror that Lauterbach creates linkages between unlikely counterparts—which is rhyme’s power and its limitation. Her use of rhyme is like a door in this way. Transitional, rhyme looks both backward and forward, finding a shared sound to open onto new possibilities, a way in. And a way out. One of the final poems of the book, “THE BLUE DOOR,” concludes in a passage out to the night sky, finding echoes instead of answers, as vast and as resonant as myth:

Poem is too busy to answer.
Words are like small magnets,
pulling other words toward them, one by one,
so the singles gather and as they gather
they attest to an alignment that will become
meaning. What was it you said about naming?
It makes a way between unbeing and being,
the definite flowing into the circulating infinite,
the blue door opening the night sky.

About the Reviewer

Claire Marie Stancek is the author of several collections of poetry, including wyrd] bird (Omnidawn, 2020), Oil Spell (Omnidawn, 2018), and MOUTHS (Noemi Press, 2017). With Daniel Benjamin, she co-edited Active Aesthetics: Contemporary Australian Poetry (Tuumba/Giramondo, 2016). With Lyn Hejinian and Jane Gregory, she is co-editor and co-founder of Nion Editions, a chapbook press. Claire Marie has a Ph.D. in English Literature from UC Berkeley. She lives in Philadelphia.