Ann Lauterbachs Door
At the Kelly Writer House in Philadelphia Ann Lauterbach stood before an audience and took a breath. It was late fall in 2013 and the poet had just been introduced but had not yet begun to read. “It’s twenty minutes past six,” she said, “in a little bit I’m going to ask you what time we got started and you’ll be able to tell me, because I will forget.” Then she turned her eyes to her page and the audience witnessed the poet vanish out of time.
About seven years earlier, Lauterbach told Charles Bernstein that before she became a poet, she wanted to be a painter. The conversation took place on Bernstein’s radio program, “Close Listening.” On air, Lauterbach recounted that as a young painter she would “go into another time space.” It was the reason she enjoyed painting. But as a college bound freshman—leaving home in New York City for classrooms at the University of Wisconsin—she had a premonition of placelessness: painters needed a place to be, writers did not. As she told Bernstein, “Being a writer meant that I could take it with me wherever I went.”
Indeed, she traveled. The young poet relocated to London for many years after leaving the Midwest. Amidst her peregrinations she wrote the line “My body is my address,” in the poem “Chalk,” first published in 1974. Initially, the qualities of autonomy and self-reliance stand out—qualities of the explorer. Beneath them is the core notion: poet embodies place. In Lauterbach’s writing this embodiment is reciprocal. The poet moves through the world, as the world moves through the poet. It’s how Lauterbach makes timelines tangle and stretch.
Her first collection was published as part of the University of Texas poetry series in 1979. Lauterbach, born in 1942, was in her late thirties. She included “Chalk” though it is unlike the other poems gathered for the book. Where most of the work feels whole and succinct, “Chalk” comes on as something fragmentary, wandering, musical in its repetition and long enough for multiple themes to arrive, depart, and return transformed. It points in the direction her writing would take her, into ever greater experimentation with form, which in turn enabled increasing modes of perception; layer upon layer of voice, which—for Lauterbach—allowed absence to become part of the whole. When Lauterbach’s work was anthologized in 2000 for the publication, If in Time, “Chalk” was left out. Why isn’t there a term for great works of art that disappear from the canon in which they belong?
To those who ask what her poems are about, Lauterbach answers, “the poems find their subjects as they are made.” Yes, her mode of discovery is always active, but the poet may choose her terrain. In her newest collection, Door, there is a work titled “Blue Door” that seems like a signal piece because the book’s cover sports a rectangular blue shape beside the word “door.” There are many poems titled “door” in the book, but this one is blue, and it’s in memory of Kenward Elmslie. Partner to the artist Joe Brainard, Elmslie was the editor who published “Chalk” first, in a long-gone publication called ZZZ. Very early in “Blue Door” Lauterbach writes, “Am I among the vanishing? How does it feel? / As if turning, as if falling, as if coming / unstuck from the body’s inconvenience?” Elmslie died in the early summer of 2022, Brainard in 1994; the book is dedicated to the memory of Lauterbach’s grandmother. Are these the vanishing? Does their movement—turning, falling, coming—stop at death, or perhaps transfer to the memory of the living? Mindful of such movement, can the poet too become unstuck from the body’s inconvenience, if only for a while?
Lauterbach’s oeuvre is populated with work that addresses her peers, living and not. Among the company she keeps are many painters, but also scholars of painting, and—because they embody the choices of their makers—paintings themselves. T.J. Clark is one such scholar to whom Lauterbach has written poems over the years. In Door there is a new poem to Clark titled “Entanglement (Delacroix)” that concludes in the field of the vanishing. Lauterbach writes, “The angels are suffering; their huge wings are wet. / They have not agreed to be absent although their time is up.” The poem addresses Clark’s response to the paintings of Delacroix, and on that level reads as a form of correspondence. What the painter, scholar, and poet share as a point of focus is a reckoning with death, an acutely felt concern with its representation. Nothing in the poem points to disease, but the image of a suffering creature ill prepared or unwilling to become “absent,” one whose “time is up” prematurely brings to mind the hundreds of thousands who died of COVID-19 while Lauterbach was writing these new poems, and further back, all of those whose bodies shriveled and quit as the AIDS virus multiplied and spread.
On the acknowledgments page of Door, Lauterbach describes the pandemic obliquely as “treacherous conditions we are living through.” As she was abiding, she wrote an essay for the Yale Review that braided her thoughts on the art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres with the “treacherous conditions” presented by the virus. In the essay she wonders, “What does it mean to say something changed a life?” And her response is, “It may mean that things you believed or thought, things that caused your judgments to form, were altered.” This happens for many writers in the process of writing. Transformation occurs. Lauterbach grew up in Lower Manhattan. She was in the city when the World Trade Center was attacked and in the aftermath of that horrific transition she wrote about her experience. She observed that “the sky where the towers were is empty, as if time had rolled backwards.” The image recurs when she describes the pandemic, “The days are untitled,” she writes, “even as they are stitched with photos of the emptied sky above the emptied streets.” Emptiness, absence—these are conditions the artwork of Gonzalez-Torres creates in order to acknowledge loss. A vanishing of one form at the emergence of another.
Near the end of Door, the poet dispenses with doors. The image of “the blue door opening the night sky,” closes the poem to Elmslie and the very next one, “Nocturne,” begins with an admission, “It turns out there wasn’t a door.” This revelation brings comfort and sadness to the poet. Like a painter, she is comforted by her ability to draw lines amidst the stars and create forms. That a door is not amongst possible formations compels sadness. Those who have seen Lauterbach read her poems may recall that she holds her papers in one hand while the other is in constant motion. She’s described the motion as “making a drawing of the shape of sound.” The drawings, of course, don’t last. They disappear as they are made.
Sometimes, in the work of Ann Lauterbach, the vanished thing reemerges. Her previous book, Spell, included a number of poems in which the poet engaged Evening in conversation. In one, titled “Earth,” she tells Evening about her friend Kenward Elmslie as she muses upon the word “survive.” Lauterbach writes, “it must mean beyond or after: beyond life.” She is thinking of Elmslie because he was “a fan and friend” of a writer (Lucia Berlin) whose fiction only gained attention after her death. Posthumous publication meant she had survived; for the poet speaking to the evening, Berlin has an “afterlife.”
How much is an afterlife a form of restoration? To restore something is to bring it back into existence, to make a thing appear again in the “time space” one inhabits. When the poet vanishes in the act of giving voice to her work, is her reemergence something like an afterlife? When the poet vanishes in the process of creating her work, does she return the same, or somewhat changed? Is she restored in the process? What about friends, lovers, and family members who pass out of existence? Their afterlife is not theirs to experience, but for the living to maintain and to cherish. The living create afterlives for the dead. It takes an act of giving one’s attention as fully and deeply as one possibly can. The work of Ann Lauterbach is a place where that gift of attention has brought forth so much.
There is a second story Lauterbach told Bernstein about becoming a poet. She had an encouraging professor who recognized her talent as a writer. This is notable because Lauterbach became a college professor, and in a twist of fate, remained at the same liberal arts institute (Bard College) for more than thirty years. She teaches there today, sharing that gift with her students, colleagues, and friends further away. One might conclude the poet found her place.