The Poetry Project

On Door by Ann Lauterbach

Nathaniel Rosenthalis

Ann Lauterbach’s Door, her twelfth collection, moves between spare imagistic poems with short lines and poems that use density to ask us to slow down and re-attune our capacity to listen and attend. These poems want to make sure that we really are listening. Consider these lines from “Table”:

I wish to be clear.

Clarity is not the same

as the literal. I object

to the literal.

What does this mean?

We had best pay


to what we care about.

This is an economy of means.

To observe that life

pivots between care

and neglect.

The lineation and word choice here are simple in a way that reveals the deeply didactic, urgent nature of the book. A poem in the middle of the book, “Ethos,” carries a similar didactic charge, but using more sustained narrative moments: “In high school, a teacher introduced the idea of an ethos. / It was difficult to comprehend. What was an / ethos?” Stepping back into the shoes of a younger self, stepping into the memory of reading the Odyssey in high school, leads Lauterbach to muse that at the time, she must have been learning about the ethos of “ancient Greece,” which she juxtaposes against her own moment: “Are we at the end of an ethos? I am / not but we are. But if we includes me, then I am.” This curiosity about time, its passage, and her perception of shifting values, brings Lauterbach to plaintive but charged musings that are anything but simple: “Someone must have predicted this, some Jeremiah / not believing in the new renewals of the new, / the ineluctable flower.” It is this ineluctable flower—what she also calls “if-then relations” and the image of “someone looking down, back hunched with bending, / following the dark ground”—that Lauterbach attends to over and over in Door.

One way that Lauterbach focuses her eyes and ears is by reusing poetic occasions from previous books. The second-to-last poem, “Nocturne,” features a clear, stable third-person point of view in a prose paragraph where the vertices of time and space stay undisturbed, a set-up reminiscent of the wonderful reanimation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice she’s done in the masterful Or to Begin Again (2009) and Under the Sign (2013).

It turns out there wasn’t a door, so she stood looking at the wall, and then at the ground, and then again at the wall, and then up at the sky. The sky was doorless, which was comforting, especially at night, when she could make images from the stars by drawing lines between and among them, as the earliest persons had done as they walked along on the desert sand. But now, looking up into the brightly strewn array, she could not draw a door because the shapes she saw resembled other geometries and, although everything seemed infinitely open, there was no way through. Perhaps, she thought, I can draw something else, not a door, but simply a path; why would anyone want to be inside when the way through cannot be enclosed. Why am I sad that there is no door? she asked herself, and then she saw how she had turned in the night air, and found herself entirely enclosed. And she asked herself, How is it possible to be at once enclosed and illuminated.

The simple set-up unlocks a poignancy where the “she” reads as a stand-in for the figure of the author herself, asking fundamental questions of where to look, what to make, and what to make of it. The ostensible preoccupation with suffering and poiesis gives way to her attention staying outward, rather than ping-ponging in the artful self-consciousness that is characteristic of most of her work, and utilized in the book’s final poem, “Door,” one of several poems with that name.

In the poem that functions as a companion to the aforementioned “Door,” the same preoccupation with illumination and night time and stars and image-making gets a staccato lyric treatment. The poem proceeds in couplets, without the gifts of landscape and fixed, personal point of view, those stable ear-markings of the human perspective. While before we had a woman in a landscape making direct observations and asking questions of the physical world, now we are stranded at a door where there is a “small incident among closings”: the incident isn’t named, and the second line of the couplet gives us “a singular display confirmed.” With the specifics unsupplied, we then find ourselves in the second couplet where there is “not the risky allowance of fate not / accruing slowly as in a habit // certainly not mere weather not / choosing a hinge or a lock.” By choosing to suspend herself and us in the voice between image and name, between perception and landscape, by choosing not to plant us in a landscape where we might get the seeming luxury of our hand and eye landing on a single concrete “hinge” or “lock,” Lauterbach shifts the emphasis to the empirical questions of who we are and what we do when we leave one zone for another.

It’s this strategy’s hope that we fill in the blanks accordingly. The final lines of the poem give us as good a summary of the mode and theme as any elsewhere to be found in the book, where we face

a condition and its picture

what was once shuttered

allowing light in xxxxxx allowing the moment

to resist passage yes

that endowment xxx the image

simple recursive

darkly enfolded—

ancient as night x traversing loss

and the abrasion

an appeal xxxxxxxx advent to be xx restored.

The poem is asking, as so many of Lauterbach’s poems have, in this book and in previous books, about what an image does and why we ask it to do what we ask it to do.

This is not an abstract, merely aesthetic question, but one with explicit political stakes: “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 truck running over hard gravel making the sound of teeth on metal skin.” This indexing of reportage about disaster, war, refugee crises (elsewhere named in the book explicitly) leads to a stand-alone sentence that has all the drama of a break-up text: “Nothing is going to get me closer because I don’t trust you to be on the other side.” Lauterbach, it seems, is breaking up the relationship between writer and reader. It gets more bitter: “as if in the bright air of evening I could sit and disclose the very amplitude and extent of the lost and found in a flirtatious swell of stories, as if these might deliver the precision for which you have asked but which you have in no way earned.” I put an exclamation mark in my margin here, feeling addressed and dressed down. We might say that the “flirtatious swell of stories” refers to anything from gossip columns to a meager, tawdry hunger for event reportage, what Lauterbach called, in her 2011 lecture “The Given and the Chosen,” the confusion between information and knowledge.

Lauterbach’s disgust with the mode of the larger culture gives way to a longing to be able to sing, that other classic trope of poetic production: “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 heard these transformations as I know you have…” I pause the quotation here because this is where the everyday sentence-level sense is, but Lauterbach uses a comma splice to unhinge that, to find her music, what much of her book is in search of:

when whatever we imagine has been seen has then been forfeited, thrown, its bloods released into poppies and sunsets, so that pathos, the tears of Mary, the tears of a girl, these are strewn into receptive air, without echo or retrieval, no ghost, no dream recalled; a chord from which the singer can drag a lament, nothing to do with melody, nothing to do with pleasure.

These poems do give real pleasure; they harp, in both senses, on not being able to say something adequate to loss; many beloved and gone figures are invoked in the book, from Kenward Elmslie to John Ashbery to Stacy Doris. The poems become powerful by making plain where they stand. Lauterbach opens and closes doors many times in the collection, often in the sense of occluded language finding sudden illumination. Here’s one among many, from the poem “Habitat”: “Today in the shower I was recalling / orgasm as a layered volume of flow / so intricately woven as to be the sensed motion / of time slowly opening.” The gift of Door is to read and reread, landing in different musics, different zones of perception.

#273 – Summer 2023