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Or to Begin Again
Ann Lauterbach
Penguin, 2009

Lauterbach’s newest book, Or to Begin Again, is a collection one might expect from such a widely celebrated poet. Or to Begin Again is aesthetically poignant, politically engaged and ethically concerned without sacrificing charm, or indulging in cynicism. Perhaps its most rewarding aspect, Or to Begin Again embraces the intensity and terror of modern life with transformational intelligence and wit.

In a note to the reader in the collection’s precursory “Acknowledgements” page, Lauterbach mentions:

When a proper noun appears in parentheses after a title, it often indicates that the poem has been drawn form an encounter; notations written as I walked through an exhibition, or listened to someone give a talk; or from my reading of an essay or poem. Throughout this collection, I am interested in the differences between spoken utterance and written text.

Much like the collection’s keystone poem, “Alice in The Wasteland,” this note gives us a picture of a female figure moving amongst texts, paintings, sculptures, poetry readings thoughtfully recording her observations as she goes from encounter to encounter. This figure is at the center of the collection as it represents both Lauterbach the poet and the imagined persona of Alice in the collections keystone poem, “Alice in The Wasteland.” Throughout Or to Begin Again there is the strong sense that Lauterbach is enjoying herself and basking in the difficulty of her concerns without self-consciousness or fear of failure. The poems display a wide range of formal mastery: single poems are interspersed with blocks of prose as well as airy moments of text that move across the page. The line between narrative and nonnarrative sequence is crossed and recrossed with impressive disregard for either category. Images, also seem effortlessly complex as in this section from “Ants in the Sugar (Blanchot/Mallarme)”:

What then? Tireless flamboyant sequence.
Guards running beside the car
Like so many fish tagging a whale’s belly,
A girl shines and flips like a coin (…)

Both images, the guards and the girl, seem composed of equal parts subdued tension and tenuous dazzle. The guards “running beside the car,” are reminders of the power of politicians and crime lords. So, too, is the girl a reminder of power’s influence, especially when one considers that a coin must be flipped by someone. One can almost imagine a cheerleader resting in a giant hand being flipped again and again so that she will continue to shine indefinitely. Both images seem a part of the “Tireless flamboyant sequence” mentioned in the line before. Besides the exactitude of the imagery, what is most impressive is the manner in the images transform two otherwise unsettling moments; guards protecting a powerful individual as he cruises down a street, and a woman flipping through the air like a piece of currency, into a kind of acceptance and reverie for the world in which these events are able to occur and reoccur. 

Based loosely on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland, the collections second section, “Alice in The Wasteland,” follows a character named Alice as she moves through a poemscape, encountering a series of objects, creatures and texts that seem inimically antithetical to her upbeat, pragmatic attitude. Take for example Alice’s encounter with the Moon:

You have very low self-esteem, Alice said. Everyone here thinks the world of you;
You are always mentioned in poems and songs.
I know. It makes me cringe with shame. Moon this moon that, lovers and
Moonlight, nocturnes and sonnets. It’s a total cliché. Stick an r in and you get
Alice stood up, casting a long black shadow.
Look how tall I am!

As a part of the Wasteland, the Moon seems determined to remain in a despondent state. It disregards Alice’s attempts to cheer it, but Alice, too, disregards the Moon’s attitude. In the last two lines, Alice’s behavior is both childlike as well as insightful and instructive. Much of Alice’s encounters in the Wasteland proceed like her meeting with the moon. Each line of “Alice” is center justified, giving an artificial symmetry to Alice’s series of encounters with objects and texts. Much like Alice, the center justification imposes an order on her otherwise haphazard journey through the Wasteland. Despite the dilapidated, despondent state of the Wasteland, Alice’s movement through and consideration of its things and inhabitants order and revivify the world.

Much like the first, the third section of Or to Begin Again contains a poems centered around “encounters” with artists, specifically Fra Angelico (a Italian Renaissance painter) and Bill Viola (a contemporary video artist). The section also contains the collection’s title-work, a long poem broken into 16 parts, each containing 16 lines. Possibly the most moving poem in the collection, “Or to Begin Again,” is a kind of universal elegy that extends its meditations and lamentations beyond a specific “end” to “all ends” or, perhaps to “the end” that faces everyone and everything.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the book is the quality of wonderment it conveys. At the center of the book is the reimagined Alice: a curious, fearless girl, making her way through a wasteland of objects and events which, despite their tenuous disturbing natures, still invigorate and excite her.   


Ben Mirov

Mirov is editor of pax americana. He is also poetry editor of LIT Magazine.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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