Review of Ann Lauterbach, If in Time: Selected Poems 1975-2000
( NY: Penguin, 2001) 

by Susan M. Schultz


Ann Lauterbach is that contemporary anomaly, the pure lyric poet.  Her work, from its beginning to the end that this book marks, uses sound as a springboard to investigations more suggestive than concrete, more ethereal than earthy, more sung than said.  I should say this is a characteristic of her work from its end to its beginning, as the Selected Poems prints her most recent work first, drawing out one of the many questions raised by the title, If in Time.  In this instance, the “if” represents the conventional lyrical impulse to move out of, and not into, time. 

Or does it?  One of the more fascinating investigations of the lyric I’ve read in recent years, Daniel Tiffany’s Toy Medium, leads me to think otherwise.  Tiffany turns the conventional notion of lyric as the vehicle for a move out of time on its metaphorical (or is it literal?) head.  In a book that is more science history than literary criticism but which combines the two provocatively, Tiffany argues that “poetry and atomic physics often converge, especially in the context of modernism [he further claims the lyric is inherently modern], in their representations of material substance and the nature of corporeality”(287).  The lyric, Tiffany asserts, is not about a lack of materiality; it is itself material.  Whatever ifs it suggests about the existence of that world, it shares with quantum physics.  The better to get at the stories we tell ourselves about matter, Tiffany writes the history of materialism, relating recent arguments over pictorial representations of the invisible world to earlier scientific and philosophical uses of automata, dolls and toys.  What this means to Tiffany is that “lyric poetry emerges not merely as the object of literary criticism but as a model of materialist criticism in its most searching and original form.”  He continues:  “Lyric poetry, according to Giorgio Agamben, is the very model of ‘science without object,’ which we must now equate with materialist or historical criticism in its most authentic—that is to say, philosophical—mode”(290).

Lauterbach has always represented herself as a thinker caught between the poles of material and immaterial substance.  In “Saint Lucia,” from her 1987 collection, Before Recollection, she writes: “I’m between Beckett and Bishop, / the one entirely in, the other there / civilizing Brazil, clarity to clarity”(206).  In a walk in Gramercy Park, recorded in her first volume, Many Times, But Then (1979), she notes that, “What we perceive / is part dream, part deceit; what we want / touches knowledge,” and further, that she took her walk “towards a cadence / of real images: the gate, the grass, the lock”(230).  Lest these “real images” be possessed of too much material substance, however, she concludes the poem in a kind of x-ray vision that Tiffany writes about at length: “There was a sense that things are lit / from within, of high, shut carriages and women in hats.”  This conclusion takes us back in time—in a trajectory resembling that of her new book—and into a kind of Victorian phantasmagoria.  It also renders the “real,” the substantive, as an image that is half-substance, half-light.  Her walk gets her to the substance of things—the atomic level—where substance is seen to have very little, if any substance. 

The internal debate over what one might call “the reality of the real” informs all Lauterbach’s work, including her interest in the moments either “before recollection” or after it, when “things” are forgotten (she has a fine essay on forgetting in a collection edited by James McCorkle).  The world Lauterbach describes is not an easy one to live in, or on; we abide on in only through an act of trust; in “Still,” she writes

          Chance is a variant
of change, the weather changing, chancy
but destined. Our trust is that we, too, are
forms attached to content, content to meanings
aroused. It is our custom to bring things about.(204)

The possible blur or shift in the meaning of the word(s) “content” in the next-to-last line quoted here denotes the variants of “chance” and “change,” two words that are at once  the same, and not quite.  “Things” that are “brought about” are often, of course, not things at all, but thoughts, feelings, an internal life whose world is represented through material metaphor.   

The word “aroused,” found in the last line I quoted from “Still,” is important to Lauterbach, as is the fact of desire (not so much as a feeling but as a state in which one lives on the earth, a state like trust that holds things together, however tentatively).  The poet is one who desires—and does not desire—to sing, but whose volition is less than complete.  The poet sees herself as a kind of mannequin, or doll, or like the follower of Stevens’s woman on the shore who sang the world into being (although Lauterbach sees this singer as less powerful than Stevens did).  In a passage from “After the Storm” that fits Tiffany’s argument about dolls (and the weather, which is and is not material), she writes:

Her trouble is the trouble of fiction and dolls;
She is authored by another, one who says
Sing! Do not sing! And does not watch
As the weed fires along the meadow
And does not see the fog roll over her toward us. (194)

The singer must, then, be blind because she is “authored by another,” is as much formed by the world as she is its creator.  She cannot be the origin of the world’s substance, or its thought, because she is part of that substance.  In many ways, this may be the last station on the transcendentalist cross, this recognition that the “transparent eyeball” doesn’t so much carry you above and beyond the Common, but also transfixes and transforms you, the subject/author of the poem.

Where Lauterbach’s early work shows her grappling with what we might call the Beckett/Bishop conundrum in a space that is almost purely literary, her later work testifies to an increasingly conscious knowledge of the tradition within which she works.  The first headnote from On a Stair (1996), for example, is from the philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, who figures so prominently in Tiffany’s narrative about the blurring of lyrical and physical readings of the world.  She quotes Agamben as follows: “The question ‘where is the thing?’ is inseparable from the question ‘where is the human?’  Like the fetish, like the toy, things are not properly anywhere, because their place is found on this side of objects and beyond the human in a zone that is no longer objective or subjective, neither personal nor impersonal, neither material nor immaterial, but where we find ourselves suddenly facing these apparently simple unknowns: the human, the thing (45)Her short sequence, “On,” made up of three poems parenthetically subtitled Word, Thing, and Dream, investigates the chanciness and changeability of the world based on words we use to describe it. “Are we mere vocabularies?” she asks, in the first, suggesting that we are: “Words turn on the mischief of their telling,” as she writes in the last line, but so does our perception of the world.  The second poem, while it purports to be about the thing, also hangs on the word more than world: “voice thread thru stone, between the s and the t and the one,” where our verbal icon, “stone,” opens to let in the voice through its pores.  And again, in the Dream section, the poem ends with an apostrophe (which gives life to inanimate objects), “o thing, you cannot cradle this relic / as it travels thru what is”(50).  These three poems resemble earlier poems in their structure on the page, their quick lyric investigation of a problem not to be solved but to be presented beautifully, like a proof (except that it is not one).  Elsewhere in this book, however, Lauterbach discovers herself as a more “experimental” writer; her poems wander across the page, they grow longer, and they are, to this reader at least, more opaque, considerably more private than the earlier poems.  Where I could read the philosophical issues in the early poems, it was here I fell back on Tiffany’s argument to get meaning out of the stone stanza (to misquote Stevens’s “stanza my stone”). 

Lauterbach’s newer work readjusts the balance between material and immaterial worlds, giving more weight to the former (the words themselves are substance, harder than the stone with its spaces between the st and the one).  Better put, perhaps, her newer work is more consciously philosophical than the early poems, and I think they suffer for it.  But open to the first page of her Selected and the questions are the same; this first page ends “where what is is / changed by language”(3).  Lauterbach’s poetics can be summed up in that enjambment, between “what is is” and “is /changed.”  The body of her work contains, is, an idea, and an important one to the history of the lyric and to larger debates that Tiffany, for one, enumerates.

Work Cited

Tiffany, Daniel.  Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric.  Berkeley: U of California P, 2001.

Bio: Susan M. Schultz is the author of { Material Lyrics } (2001), Memory Cards (the happiness project) (2000), Aleatory Allegories (2000) among others.  She teaches at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa and edits Tinfish magazine and Press.



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