Under the Sign by Ann Lauterbach

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Let’s begin with understatements. Ann Lauterbach is knowledgeable about art and literature. Ann Lauterbach writes with purpose and precision. Ann Lauterbach is an erudite poet.

Since her poetry reflects an enormous intellectual and emotional investment in the visual arts, I must first acknowledge Lauterbach’s work as ekphrastic From the Greek meaning “description,” ekphrasis suggests that a poem describes a work of art in provocative detail. Famous examples, including Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Auden’s “Musee de Beaux Arts,” include not only the poet’s close noticing of the painting itself but also thoughtful conclusions drawn from prolonged study. For instance, Auden’s ekphrastic poem famously begins with an insight he derived from contemplating Brueghel’s painting, “The Fall of Icarus”: About suffering they were never wrong, / the Old Masters.

Lauterbach describes paintings deftly and even holds them up as hand-mirrors for personal experience or cultural reflection. Her poems often seem to move in analogic tandem with the paintings to which they refer. An example of this is “Triptych (Van Eyck),” which appears in the first of the book’s three sections. Adopting the form of a triptych, this poem is presented in three panels. The first is longer than the second and third, evoking the way our eyes linger first and longest on the central panel of a visual triptych before moving outward to the sides. Lauterbach’s description of this, Van Eyck’s only extant triptych, begins: “The woman //  with a child on her lap / sitting on rugs //  what is she doing //  there / in the middle // the day / might always be cold // March light.” From this question, she postulates an answer: “and because / it can never be //  early enough/ she is always //  sitting / aside // in wait.”

Turning to the side panels then, the second and third sections of this poem take an imperative turn. Perhaps Lauterbach is speaking in the imagined voice of the Archangel Gabriel (on the left wing), the imagined voice of St. Catherine (on the right wing), or in her own voice, entreating the Virgin Mary. It may be Van Eyck’s voice, too, that she is conjuring, and our voices as readers and viewers, growing into the collective frenzy of a chorus that transcends both the canvas and the page: “Go off / into a woody scene //  and take / the painted epilogue //  with you. / Burn it for heat //  and burn the / currency of emeralds //  mistaken / for new life.” In a pleasing irony, the poem ends with one word repeated: “start, start.” Does the Virgin Mary’s life begin after the birth of Christ? The poem seems to surmise, Yes, and—, always with an implicit long dash. Our lives, too, extend beyond “stupendous enrichment / during the spell.” In addition, the poem itself may be read as meta-commentary on the limitations of art. The speaker seems to believe we need art. We are kindled by it emotionally, intellectually. And yet, in the end, we might be best advised to “Burn it for heat.” Art is no substitute for life after all. Life begins only when we transcend the artificial tableau, taking with us what we have learned.


It may be relevant to note that Van Eyck’s “Dresden Triptych” is the only non-portrait upon which he inscribed his credo, “I do as I can.”  Lauterbach’s poems echo this sentiment as well. They turn meta on the nature of art (what can be done), on the nature of her art (what she can do), bringing the power of humility and the fear of futility so close together they nearly touch. In the poem “Il Pleut,” French for “it’s raining,” Lauterbach writes as Everywoman and herself: “a room / reserved for those //  in mourning for / acts of insight // that link/perception/ to understanding. […] She speaks slant / lines only the birds hear.”

As a poet, Lauterbach is nothing if not versatile in content and form. The same poet who crafts enigmatic metaphors like “The indictment of thought / is an opal’s smooth version” and elegant, intellectual equations like “To dream is / to proliferate / in the opening that is / always shut” also writes playfully of “ratty logic” and “an orgy of hunches.” In a poem like “After Newtown,” she addresses a tragic current event—the 2012 mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school—in tight couplets that seem to mirror taut lips, struggling to pronounce the unspeakable: “Maybe there’s a top at the end of / the world made by someone else.” Reading this poem in context of the whole collection, the reader begins to see how Newtown is but one detail in a painting of the brutal American zeitgeist—by turns aggressive and apathetic, invasive and disconnected. Many pages later, in the third section of the book, the reader will encounter language that pans out to encompass Lauterbach’s word-painting as a whole: “Of course the present / is open is / calamity in waiting is  / marked / previously unharmed/ in a frame. The present is endangered. / Sell it.” Here (hear) the commodification of art. Here (hear) the commodification of tragedy. Befitting her cohort of fine artists, cited here and in the world beyond, Lauterbach never addresses a single group or confines herself to a single idea in these poems. Her register is resolutely multi-valent. She is a poet brave enough to ask, “Are we lost among our subjects?” and brave enough to rally, much later in her book—“Vocabulary of lost causes / meets vocabulary of / found causes / and we and they / launch combat.”

Art is meant to “instruct and delight,” as we’re told. Lauterbach extends this rubric further. She challenges and enchants. Her poetry is the cha-cha-cha of sound-image-insight. In my estimation, the most challenging and enchanting portion of the book is its largest section, its central panel. I never saw this section coming—it was hidden, as if behind a curtain—and then when the curtain was raised, I couldn’t look away. Lauterbach writes in her first poem of the book, “If this were prose, little / agreements would obtain, / and you could turn toward the missed / like an angel on a fence. / I mean a bird, a bird / in prose.” I didn’t realize that these lines were a clue, foreshadowing in poetry the prose yet to come.

Full disclosure: this semester I am teaching a graduate seminar in the lyric essay. I want us all, my students and myself, to open ourselves to possibility, “to proliferate / in the opening that is / always shut” that Lauterbach describes. I think my students might suspect me of seeing lyric essays everywhere, even where they are not. Some people report double vision; mine is polymorphic, as I am always on the lookout for different forms, stages, and types of writing within a single writer’s work.

Lauterbach’s book came to me as challenge and reward. The centerpiece of Under the Sign is titled “Task: To Open.” With the placement of these words, she has my full attention. She is spreading her prose-wings now—like the angel she mentions in that first poem, like the bird. She is postulating toward those “little agreements” in lyric essay form.

Appraisal of the zeitgeist: “American mandate: be at once the same as and different from—conundrum at the crux.”

Appraisal of the nature of art, which is also the nature of life: “Writing as the permeable edge between inward meditation and outward connectivity: in a sense about that, pure and elastic flicker of the subject-object dyad that defines acts of being, reading, listening. These are acts of delicacy and attention, to allow for an opening, to let something unknown in, let it combine with what is already there. How else do we change? How else love?”

I used these words to open—both in the sense of to commence and in the sense of to liberate—my graduate lyric essay class. I used them to initiate a conversation with my students about a form that is as generative and malleable and heterogeneous as Lauterbach’s exceptional example-text. If the poems in Under the Sign are triptychs, then this lyric essay is forty-one paintings filling the capacious space of a gallery room—perhaps a gallery wing. There is nothing Lauterbach won’t take on here, won’t confront, won’t explore: “The idea of the ordinary”[…] “Deleuze’s sense of the immanent”[…] “the need to consider; to teach, human efforts and practices that do not immediately convert into practical utility or commerce.” The range of her essay is as stunning as its depth.

Ann Lauterbach is an artist in the truest sense of this word, and a meta-artist in the truest sense of this word, too. That she is able to articulate what she seeks to do—and in the process of articulation, to actually do it—astonishes me beyond measure, as here:

Task: to confront this fact: to make something, say a work of art or a poem, that no one is waiting for, no one actively wants; without market; what comes into being, what arrives or materializes, is not expected, not announced: the unforeseen […]

In this lyric essay, or whatever we might be moved to call the twenty-nine pages of fragmented, rhythmical, non-lineated language at the fulcrum of Lauterbach’s book, our guide encourages us to consider the following: “Thought experiment: imagine what a person might want to read in one hundred years.” I don’t have to imagine, and I don’t have to wait one hundred years. The answer is this—this essay, this book, this poet. This is the answer.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →