The Poetry Project

On A Reaction to Someone Coming In by Wendy Lotterman

Bianca Rae Messinger

Wendy Lotterman’s debut collection A Reaction to Someone Coming In asks us the question, “why consent to live in images”? A seemingly simple statement, yet one that gives us the ability to destroy empires. We could make a comparison, treating images as solid also means treating empires as solid. The collection, which varies between swiftly moving lyrical addresses and blocks of room-like prose poems, deals deftly and deeply with the question of what can and cannot be seen. Ultimately, Lotterman’s question, like the poems that follow it, calls for a reimagining of our modes of desire and representation, through a language that glows by animating the secrets that surround it. In a sense it shows us the undergirding ambiguity of the world around us, it attempts to give back mystery to images. To approximate “the lightness of a punch,” the poems show that “life is too busy having fun to sit still for a picture.” Sex, childhood, invitation, debris, desire, and “spooky looping,” all combine to show us the beautiful excess of the world.

One of my readings of Reaction, on the 8-hour Amtrak from Buffalo to New York, was to see whether I could make the poems into a writing exercise. The exercise would go something like this—to write a poem, then write another poem, then replace the nouns of one with the nouns of the other. This exercise obviously didn’t last very long (“since the golf balls in my wallet cannot feel or be felt”). But there’s a way in which Lotterman keeps us constantly on the edge of our seats through her vibrancy of feeling and impulse, ending up in “a miscarriage of flowers”. So, I give up on the exercise—the poems are too “particular” for that, but also too broad ranging in scope and form. I feel myself wanting more and more of, “In the Flowers of Young Girls in Shadow,” where “neither ass nor mouth is undone by the circumference of the other.” Here, figuration does what it should do, which is to bring us closer to a world without repression—if such a thing is possible. Or, this comparison shows that connection or similarity can exist without condensing or shrinking meaning down to some common assumption (“Parental love is enormous and mistakenly case as the foil to all future partners”). This new similarity shows us how desire gives “the particular” room to operate.

Reaction’s opening prepares us for the great slabs of language which are to come, “at some point, coincidence triumphs, evicting a hypothesis of cause that stayed too long.” Half exercise, half narrative swerve, there’s a way that each line of the more lyrical opening poems redefine the words that come before them. Maybe it’s because of the “comic victory of the particular,” which recurs like a wave through the book. Maybe it’s because A Reaction revels deeply in the motility of language, where “One of a kind is really a veiled declaration of plurality.” In order to get to what’s hidden the poems ask us to change the focus of our invitations, “Let them rob us, / And us them. The mold breeds weakly, / Like the roof was only ever a suggestion.” Our invitations are asked to account for a multiplicity of meanings, “mold breeds weakly” is also “mold breads weekly.” Can you have a home invasion fantasy without the concept of property?

“Reaction” is a funny thing to title this collection, but it also serves as the perfect antidote to an unquestioned solidity of form, to an unquestioned solidity of images (“Boxes and boxes and boxes are blocking the way”). Reaction then might be all we have, but Lotterman’s reaction is never “reactive.” I feel the poems even react in their very composition, with enjambment that constantly swerves towards a definition that it never quite arrives at. Maybe because blocks of concrete make a break in our signification—maybe because we live in a world where “the crush slips like Teflon the day it’s brought to term.” The book has the kind of title, and the kind of poems that take multiple readings before they let you in, until you let yourself find “the light of two perverted suns doing sex things on the bed.” Lotterman herself, interviewed by poet Violet Spurlock who is in turn interviewed by Lotterman, depicts this moment as the closest the book comes to describing a “certain type of light.” It’s a poem where the ambiguity of sex and feeling takes center stage, or “what happens when I’m not there.” It’s a mode, and a project, that reminds me of Mayer’s poem “I Imagine Things” from The Golden Book of Words, another great poem on form and doubt and feeling (“how can I ever continue to carry you, carry you, through every room, through every change in the light in the color”). Lotterman’s you, as with Mayer’s, is both the poet and not the poet, creating a poem which attempts to void the speaker, momentarily, in order to find the emotional building blocks of desire.

Lotterman opens up a world of meaning that combines the particular with the universal but does so through non-stop play (“To persist / And expire inside the play is a wonderful / Thought”). There’s a sonic tension in a line like, “trial / by lyre, lying bilateral fires in a / Race-car twin-sized coincidence.” This collection ruptures our neat chain of consequence, to question our assumptions of meaning, through moments like, “Teflon honey,” “Clean eraser.” Teflon is a recurrent material in the book. Meaning, in a lyrical sense of affirmation, seems emptied out, as words and wood chips, chunks of food, childhood memories of swim team, “Nantucket bracelets” and puka shells, are constantly being ejected by the speaker. What we end up with might feel like a dream but Lotterman reminds us, “Dreams down pay the balance / of what can’t be staged in life, where I imagine the force of synthesis / to be stoppable by a single disposable contact lens, place on the tip of / a penis.” Or, putting our stake in the poem as a form of solution or synthesis lacks the appetite necessary to reflect the fullness of desire, but it can operate as a “peephole”.

“Four Questions,” Lotterman’s final group of prose-seeming but lyric-playing blocks—a form which bookmarks the collection—serves as a place where the intimacy of this de-centered subject can play. If there’s a power, a structure, at play here it lies in the movement towards a discursive center which sheds itself to find some primal lack. The poems work in a psychoanalytic register, which Lotterman’s work as editor for Parapraxis also points towards. The “Four Questions” (perhaps echoing the subtitle of Lacan’s Seminar XI?) evoke a voice that asks us to enter a space for which we don’t have language, “towing the insensate center toward the poverty of its original cause: that sex is how you got here but functionally blind in the meantime for want of a different desire.” Can the speaker ever end up gaining access to this “original cause”? Signs point to no. I feel these poems resonating with Freud’s “Postscript” in Dora, his own admission of failing both to see complexity of Dora’s world (and her homosexuality). He writes, “No one, I believe, can have had any true conception of the complexity of the psychological events in a case of hysteria—the juxtaposition of the most dissimilar tendencies, the mutual dependence of contrary ideas.” We must give up our attempt to codify and diagnose. Psychoanalysis does not “create” but it can allow things to come to the surface. The speaker in “Delete to Receive” reminds us, “to say ‘yes’ to the resident / angel who asks if you are drowning off the coast of your / responsibly buoyant home, vomiting gold mesh amenities that can’t hold your / sequin dream as you wake up screaming.”

The final section of the collection (“Trade Secrets”) seems interested in laying out what might be an iteration of selfhood, however tenuous it may be. Moreover, Lotterman’s book eschews the tidy form of conceptualism in favor of a more slippery figuration that gradually fades into a field of weirdness and addresses, or essay. It ends with the reminder that “in this weird, denuded universe, / we will pay for this disinvitation, for life.” The moments of transcendence in this book are hidden, and we can only see them once we realize that these vines do not hurt the trees, when “we realize that / Action progresses only by accident.” A disinvitation to life means to close oneself off to desire itself, we must instead, fight for a “teenage sovereignty”. Lotterman calls on us “to be a bunch of worms, or an / Acre” to remember that “to persist / And expire inside the play is a wonderful / Thought.”

#276 – Spring 2024