Without End

Deming_35.4_schwabe Richard Deming reviews Ann Lauterbach's Or To Begin Again, in The Boston Review:

The poems of Ann Lauterbach’s Or to Begin Again probe the difficult questions—ethical, emotional, political, and even spiritual—of accounting for despair while allowing for it to become something more than a mechanism pressing the death drive forward. How do any of us, Lauterbach’s poems ask, begin again without turning our backs on catastrophic events, events that, like a bad dream, seem to continue to shape and define the present and our sense of a possible—or impossible—future? How does one respond to the world, then, in the aftermath of the aftermath?

Lauterbach’s response provides neither solace nor an occasion to share righteous indignation. She has a sense of hope, but she wants it to be something more than sentimental naïveté—otherwise, from the hope we seek, we may get simply the despair we deserve. And this is where poetry comes in. In “After the Fall,” an essay from her The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience, which wrestles with the prospect of writing after September 11, Lauterbach insists, “Poetry continues to elucidate the vital topography between individual and historical accounting.” The fraught interrelation of despair and hope underwriting the attempts at such accounting has long been part of Lauterbach’s subject, and this statement of her poetics is crucial to understanding her latest work and the terrain of conflicting values and literary aspirations in which it locates itself.

The attacks on the Twin Towers continue to sit heavily on the poet, as they do on many of us. Still, Lauterbach’s task transcends any particular historical moment; it applies to them all, to the ever-present temptations to despair (and misconceived hope). “Or to begin again / in the miraculous scale of the small nouns, / their mischief and potential,” Lauterbach writes in the title poem, positioned near the end of the book. The “small nouns,” it seems, provide a way of locating oneself, and yet, as she also writes, “I had wanted a location but had become embattled / in a zone of supposition and indirection.” How one finds the way to voice history despite being caught between supposition and indirection, miracle and mischief, is the task both the title poem and the book set for themselves…