Coming to Grips with the Ineffable

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

The Review’s February 8, 2024, issue includes “War Zone,” a poem by Ann Lauterbach. “Days emptied out along the hairline/cracks,” it begins. Over a long sentence the poem proceeds to drain “glossy oil” and “thoughts,/ghost things of the mind” from those days, until what remains is “the grieving of a stranger in a photograph of war.” The second and last sentence, in contrast, is just one line long: “Last line intentionally left blank.”

Lauterbach has taught at Bard College for more than fifteen years, and was, until 2020, cochair of their writing MFA program. The recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and a MacArthur grant, she is the author of eleven poetry collections, including her most recent, Door (2023). She is also an art critic and an essayist, and in 1998 published the limited edition Thripsis, a collaboration with Joe Brainard that paired a watercolor still life he’d painted in 1968 with a poem she wrote in his memory.

I e-mailed with Lauterbach this week to get a poet’s take on war, art, and beauty.

Elisabeth Koyfman: “War Zone” opens and closes with depictions of emptiness, and then throughout are vacated words like “ghost, “colorless,” “bodiless,” “translucent,” and “changeless.” Despite this seemingly abandoned state, the poem occupies fourteen lines, paradoxically taking up space and meaning. Why did you choose to depict a war zone in this manner, rather than with violent imagery and bloodshed?

Ann Lauterbach: The poem addresses an inconsolable muteness we might feel when we are confronted with images of the ravages of war and of those who experience it in real-time. It tries to imagine the absolute state of pain and grief, which cannot be shared with others except through metaphors or analogies. For me, these metaphors are about silence and absence. I am also a coward when it comes to watching or seeing images of war; as a child, I had to leave the movie theater when newsreels showed war footage; even today, I cannot look at photographs or videos of the war in Gaza.

My poems are invariably inspired by multiple events. Recently I put some ashes of my beloved cousin Michael into the ground by a stream, and I think I felt something of death’s profound collapse of the sensuous—the sensed—world. I have a friend who is suffering hugely from cancer treatments who commented that the disease was “like a war zone,” where we learn the names of places—cities, towns, buildings—that we never knew about before. His response felt exactly right, the details of our inner bodies are curiously unknown until we find ourselves confronted with the excruciating, medical, nominative details. The poem wants in part to address the interiority of the anguish, physical and emotional, of his experience. The last line is meant to cause a kind of radical, violent breach in the diction; the phrase “this page intentionally left blank” appears on legal documents, like wills.

Across eleven collections of poetry, how have your intentions with your writing changed? Are there any themes that you find recur throughout your work?

I am not sure I have any clear intention other than to share my sense of baffled wonder at the fact of life in its mingling of chance and change outside of our intentions. I rarely think of overt subject matter or themes, but I suspect the thread that moves through the work is a question: How do words make meaning from the infinite variety of life? It’s pretty broad. Within that is an equally abstract “argument” with time, a perpetual desire to arrest or capture something out of the spatial field, which is itself an interest in the intersection of verbal and visual—ear and eye—materials; I think I want the poems to make nonnarrative temporal engagements with various physical phenomena, and to ask how or if it is possible to align internal responses (and their particular, subjective histories) with external perceptions—the long literary and philosophical trajectory of questions around inner and outer realms of experience.

I have for a long time wanted the poem to have the status of an event, of something that happens to alter, however briefly, the sense of the passage of time as a cause-effect linear continuum. I suppose that wish amounts to a kind of intention! My individual books seem to have their own tonal atmosphere, reflecting not so much an intention as a condition or set of conditions that informed the writing—where I was living, what I was doing, seeing, the events of the world at large. Throughout, I have wanted the work to be guided by something like an opening, an easing or reconfiguring of the felt intensities of personal experience.

You last appeared in the Review in August 2021, with the poem “Hand (Giotto).” It describes a blank sky and “a reverie of reach and touch;/The ancient, fingered dark,” which seemed to evoke Giotto’s chapel frescoes. Is there a parallel between Giotto’s art in its dream to reach closer to the heavens and the speaker, struggling to recall words? What do you imagine the speaker is reaching toward?


I saw the Arena Chapel in Padua when I was in my twenties, which had a huge effect on me, and when I wrote “Hand (Giotto)” I had recently read T. J. Clark’s Heaven on Earth, in which he talks about the Giotto frescoes. In one panel, Joachim’s Sacrifice, an isolated hand is seen at the top of the frame, pointing downward. (In all of Giotto, hands and faces are extraordinarily expressive.) I was thinking about this image, the idea of touch, the “hands” of a clock, and the abstractions of temporal counting as opposed to Giotto’s haptic or material sense of the infinite spiritual world. The speaker is trying to come to grips, so to speak, with the ineffable.

How has your work in art galleries and as a critic shaped your poetry, if at all?

Like many poets, I had once wanted to be a painter, and the world of visual art has informed my poems, my thinking about the difference between words and images, how words are not and cannot be images but can sometimes make verbal meanings out of visual materials. My poems are rarely strictly ekphrastic, but I have been interested in how a particular visual work might draw out a kind of narrative response that is not a description of the image so much as a string of associations caused by the image. I am interested in the tension between nature (as change) and visual culture (as stasis). In my critical writing I am similarly attempting to mark, or remark on, my responses to an individual artist’s vision, and to come as close as I can to a kind of meeting between what is seen and what is said, without relying on description itself.

Your poem “Hum,” from your 2005 collection Hum, opens like the chorus of a song, “The days are beautiful/The days are beautiful,” and then closes with an altered couplet, “Here are the ashes./The days are beautiful.” What is beauty to you?

That poem was written as a direct response to the events of September 11, when I lived a few blocks away from Ground Zero. The weather that morning was “beautiful,” a perfect bright September day. So that was a literal meaning, but beauty, of course is an elusive descriptor; it has no permanent address across times and cultures, but is found in our apprehensions of things, persons, and ideas. I sometimes think that the artist’s or poet’s job is to revise our sense of the beautiful, to keep it fresh, and to rescue it from received ideas, cosmetics, and sentiment. There is, of course, a history of aesthetics, which is why we can be in awe of, say, Giotto, but even that history is neither stable nor incontrovertible. I want to say that for me, beauty, like music, is found in relations between and among things rather than in single objects, even as, finally, it is the composition, or form, that counts. Increasingly I think that syntax, both verbal and visual, is at the center of the discovery of meaning.

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