I treated myself in the final days of 2018 to a reading of Ann Lauterbach’s book of poems, Spell. It’s an amazing book. Passing my eyes over its pages provoked in me singular journeys down enticing mental avenues until I’d look up from the page in a swoon of contemplation. In other words, the poems in Spell excited me, as the Physics metaphor would have it: they stimulated my intellectual energy above ground level, into a state of motion and response, entangled with Lauterbach’s own. In “Intent, Intend”—one of the several prose dialogues the author holds with a personification of Evening throughout the book—Lauterbach defines my experience as one of the things art can do. It can create an affinity between “two subjectivities,” and, as she puts it: “This affinity is a form of desire, an arousal of admiration and curiosity . . . as we come to know the work, we are changed; our sense of our world is altered.”
That such a desire has moved Lauterbach countless times is evident in the many poems in Spellthat are dedicated to or in dialogue with artists and poets and their works (including the cover image, an inky bird silhouette painted over dictionary pages by William Kentridge). The book as a whole is dedicated to “JA”—whom I take to be John Ashbery—and to Anselm Berrigan and Nancy Shaver (poet, artist).
The “JA” dedication cues us to understand that Spell is in dialogue with the dead. It looks back in elegy and forward to the author’s own death. “No one wakes without loss” Lauterbach writes in the beautiful “Value,” which ends with a litany: “My cousin Douglas / with one s / died when he was twelve / of cystic fibrosis. / Liz, Katie, and Matthew / followed suit.” Because the poems in Spell are often followed with dictionary-formatted etymologies of key words, Lauterbach prompts her reader to think about word origins and meanings. I click over to the OED to research the idiom “followed suit.” After considerable astonishment at the various meanings of “suit” (from “attendance by a tenant at the court” to “bathing”) I find what I am looking for:
b. to follow suit (earlier †to follow in suit): to play a card of the same suit as the leading card; hence often fig., to do the same thing as somebody or something else. (Cf. 13c.)
Earliest citation 1680: “The elder begins and younger follows in suit as at Whisk.” So according to the poem, “Liz, Katie, and Matthew” played the same hand as “Douglas / with on s.” Shades of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal . . . death as a game we are all in the midst of . . . what’s in your hand? What’s in mine?
Death and loss are everywhere present in Spell. Lauterbach ritualistically arranges objects that belonged to dead loved ones in her rooms and then imagines these same things being “tossed into the trash” once she’s gone. “I’m having another one of those episodes in which dying seems very near,” she writes in “Earth,” just before mentioning that she’s reading a book I love, Robert Pogue Harrison’s Dominion of the Dead. Learning that our eyes have shared Harrison’s pages, I feel a little joy. Maybe she and I can have a conversation about the ideas put forth in this book!? The thought is cut short by panic. How much longer will I have the privilege of responding, not just to Lauterbach’s work, but to the living breathing poet herself? It is then I realize that all the while I have been reading Spell, I have also been composing a letter to Lauterbach in my head. I have been formulating sentences to show her how much I admire her poems. I have been preparing my own thinking as a thank you. I love Spell’s Orphic avenues. I love Spell’s embrace of the erring quest of the intellectual poem. I love her description of lying awake “in the small hours” terrorized by “Night’s Ambassador of the List.” I don’t feel so much inspired to write my own poems, as I do to write to Lauterbach about hers.
This happens often. Books I admire by living authors activate my epistolary impulse. If I know the author, as I do Lauterbach, chances are I’ll finish by actually writing and sending a letter (paper or email). If I do not know the author, I may also send a letter—as I did with Pogue Harrison—though it takes a bit more courage, for I worry such missives will be received as a burden, an unwelcome debt, or that the author will think me facile. Because it isn’t “fan mail” that I’m sending. One-way admiration. And there is a demand in my letters. A demand and a hunger. A hunger for meaningful exchange with writers who have managed to puncture the hubris of the contemporary. Writers who remind me of the long game, the existential urgency, the humanistic enterprise of letters . . . “Art helps us to recognize and celebrate our differences within some fundamental likeness,” Lauterbach writes in “Think.” Yes.
Yes, but it also occurs to me that, as art has the capacity to alter our sense of the world, so too do our interlocutors. And their loss. Lauterbach knows something about this. In her introduction to Joe Brainard’s Nancy Book, her missing of the living, breathing Brainard is palpable. John Ashbery was a close friend with whom I imagine she shared many piquant and allusion-rich conversations. His passing in 2017 changed the landscape of American poetry, but I suspect this change felt different to Lauterbach, closer and more personal. When the poets who have shaped both our work and our sense of the world die, something profound shifts within us as well.
Robert Creeley’s death did this to me. I tried to explain the feeling in my 2005 essay “Lyric Poetry and the Inassimilable Life”: “Never before had the death of someone I knew so little affected me so much . . . . Creeley stood for something that was important to me. A kind of person-to-person communication, a kind of attention to your surroundings. A kind of lyric practice. Without ever asking anything of me he supported my work. I was not his student, he owed me nothing.”
No matter our age, none of us know when we’re going to die. Nevertheless, we tacitly operate under the assumption that those who are older will go first. In the poem “Fact,” Lauterbach surprises me: “[s]haring the same death day is not something we think about, the way we think about sharing the same birthday.” We’ve all heard those tales about a good, but perhaps only minorly famous person’s death being overshadowed in the obituaries because they had the ill-fortune to share a death day with someone of great infamy or notoriety. And we’ve just begun to appreciate how, historically, many amazing women artists received no obit at all, at least not in the Times.
I feel compelled to stop here and address something untoward about this essay: though in Spell Lauterbach admits to thinking about her own death, for me to admit that I am thinking about it seems ill-mannered, or the violation of some unspoken taboo. “Dear Ann, I’m in a panic because I fear you may die and I will no longer have access to the progress of your amazing mind!” We may think such thoughts, but should we utter or write them?
And isn’t equating access to Lauterbach’s person with access to her mind a fantastical optimism concerning the possibilities of the dialogic? If I were to travel to Germantown posthaste and, if Ann would have me, sit in her lovely company, what conditions would need to be present to have a really meaningful conversation about the aesthetic and political questions she raises in Spell? Wouldn’t the needs of our bodies intervene? Might she not feel a slight dyspepsia, or I have a hot flash? Might she be anxious about adequately representing the thought in her poems, and I be anxious about the awkward unfolding of my enthusiasm? Maybe it is better to write a letter after all . . .
A letter allows itself to be read in solitude and with contemplation. A letter is quiet, slow, analog. The body can be relaxed and unselfconscious when reading a letter. I would say it is generous way to respond to a book were it not that so many poets have told to me that receiving a letter also instills guilt. The assumption that one must write back. Perhaps we would prefer thoughtful public reviews to private individualized responses to our books? Do either alleviate the fear that much of what do is invisible?
“Now we are faced with a present that seems stripped of embodied presence, much less knowledge of the past,” Lauterbach writes in “Phenomenon.” “We seem to be living in a steady stream of nows.” If she’s thinking about the digital experience of time, which I posit she is, I might add that these “nows” lack space, they are virtual and as such do not exist in the physical world. Somewhat like language, with the major difference that the feel of language is the feeling of something that is physically inside of us. Something we can hold and shape with our minds. Something with which we can leave a trace in the physical world, like a book. Though after we’re gone our books may be “tossed into the trash,” might they not just as likely be opened and read?
The panic of allowing myself to think: Ann could be close to death. As are so many poets without whose work I would not have been able to imagine my own. I could make a list, but that would be a macabre exercise and likely danger courting. Let’s just say that there are more than I can calmly contemplate. The panic is real. But it does not wholly stem from the ongoing need to accessand to talk to these poets—however desirable and pleasurable that would certainly be. As a source of the panic that is a mistake. “[W]e need to make mistakes; it’s the way of evolution,” Lauterbach writes in “Sublime, Full.” The panic stems, rather, from a ground of long contentedness in knowing that poets such as Lauterbach are sharing the planet with me in this particular “now,” and that the “embodied presence” of their minds and work have made the world habitable. I feel bereft at the thought of what’s lost when a poet’s hard-acquired experience and intellectual energy returns to ground.
There is also the responsibility. Poets I have known and know who were born in the 1930s and 40s have a high serious sense of vocation. They embraced Pound’s notion of the poet’s art as the work of a lifetime. Over the years, when I have cast my eyes up ahead, they have inspired and set a bar. A welcome challenge. At the end of Spell, Lauterbach includes two pages of definitions of her title. One from the 1620s reads: “a turn of work in place of another,” which evolved to mean a continuous line of work, “where one man or crew regularly ‘spelled’ another.” I ask myself, am I ready to “spell” such poets at their level when the time comes for them to leave off their labors?