Review by Brittany Sanders.
In her most recent collection, Or To Begin Again, poet Ann Lauterbach offers readers poems which seem anxious to be read, yet stubbornly unwilling to give up their overriding message (if there is one). Although only one piece is officially “untitled,” it feels as though the whole book might fit that description. There is no doubt of Lauterbach’s intelligence, nor of her writing talent, as evidenced by the prose-poem sections of “Alice in the Wasteland.” Yet her poetry lacks accessibility to such a degree that readers might find themselves so frustrated and dazed by her pinball imagery that they cannot appreciate the beauty of the words themselves. She is either deliberately elusive—perhaps to heighten her esoteric appeal—or her ideas are so densely piled on top of each other that they defy coherent encapsulation.
Despite her cryptic free verse, Lauterbach manages some unique commentary on poetry, claiming (through Alice) that they do not need to rhyme because “poems are examples of themselves,” and “you know a poem is a poem the way you know love is love.” If the entire volume read like this, Lauterbach would be gobbled up by poetry lovers everywhere. But these lines are actually the best in the book, most of which does not sustain this caliber of literary philosophy. Other poems reference modern technology, incarnated as Microsoft Word (“Dear Blank”) and iTunes (“The Scale of Restless Things”). Jesus shows up in snapshot form as “a Jewish peasant / his teaching, agrarian” although the author’s style is too abstract to allow conclusive theology.
The most intriguing poem is the darkly whimsical “Alice in the Wasteland,” in which a version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice dialogues with a mysterious voice. Amidst much speculation about the interplay between word structure and meaning, Alice weeps over “air trapped in hair, as the O in snow.” Though it is difficult to isolate a central theme within this volume, many of its poems do share a sense of entrapment, both as frustrated verbal expression and emotional bondage. Perhaps this is Lauterbach’s intention: to ensnare readers within her long, labyrinthine poems so they can vicariously experience the sensation of being lost and trapped. Furthermore, maybe her poems are meant to reflect being trapped within a problem, unable to find an escape or even move forward; thus the last poem, “Or To Begin Again,” shares its title with the collection, perhaps reflecting the inexorable cycle of indefinite meaning from which none can escape.
The cover of this volume features a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo: a hypnotic, off-center shot of a winding staircase, leading down into a reflective pool of water. As a whole, the image could easily be taken for an over-sized eye, the rippling pool forming the pupil, surrounded by an unsettling white staircase. Much like its cover, Or To Begin Again will both attract and disturb its readers, coupling the bizarre with the beautiful, the irrelevant with the real.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com