Brett Fletcher Lauer’s debut collection, A Hotel in Belgium, resists. The poems resist narrative as often as they sneak over towards it, snag some, and then move back over the boundary—however arbitrary and fleeting that boundary might be—into a lyric. The poems challenge the reader to follow along with the narrative and/or lyric and then, just like a magician snapping her fingers to get you to look that way, the logic falls apart, falls inward, collapses, rearranges itself in the cavern it fell into, and then shouts back up to you on the surface, saying, “See? See? Didn’t I tell you there was a hole here all along?”
That sense of resistance also becomes a venue for doubling, so that, one thing becomes two, becomes multifaceted, not because everything necessarily exists in a state of constant change, but because the speaker exists in a state of constant change, so his view, his language, reflects that:
In the beginning, my eyes were angled
out a window on a point providing
conclusion while periodic vibrations
of fear aggressively governed
my anatomy. There were others
kept ignorant of the latitude of this
municipality, the river’s proper name,
and its source in a local mountain.
It’s important this isn’t construed as
a sales pitch, just a sensible presentation
of the future, sealed as its caskets
like some distant city encircled by
horned predators. Don’t wish the dead
are not. They are.
— from “Stockholm Syndrome”
Even the opening epigraph from Goethe delivers this sensation of a doubling and of a resistance: “It is as if a curtain had been drawn from before my soul, and this scene of infinite life had been transformed before my eyes into the abyss of the grave, forever open wide.” It is this uncovering, this unveiling, that alters the view: from infinite life to an abyss of the grave, both existing “forever open wide,” but, in one instance, a peaceful, joyous experience, and in the other, a darker existential reality. The action, though, remains a singular event. It is our interpretation of that action, our view that alters the thing looked at.
Beyond the poems’ resistance to fitting into a binary, the reading of the poems—the syntax and sentence structure, the rhetoric—resists a single, easy read. These are poems we must return to, that we want to return to, so that we can get a better grasp of this poet’s mind. And after reading the book a handful of times, I’ve come to no conclusions on these poems, because the poems don’t conclude their thoughts. There is no resounding, final chord, no final return, no abiding image. Instead, they resonate. They trail off. They get somewhat lost because, the poems suggest, getting lost is a legitimate reaction to the world these poems present and occupy.
Our situation is complicated, full of negations
and negations of negations. To remember
experience rather than what’s occurring—
this detachment replaced with strangers
other strangers recognize.
— from “In a Station of the Metro”
Occasionally, a line arrests us in these poems with its desire to connect with the reader (“Don’t cry. I am touching//your shoulder.”) More often than not, though, the speaker’s sense of confusion returns—which we share as the reader—so, yes, we receive a Frostian momentary stay against the confusion the speaker feels, but, just as soon as we feel that, we’re tossed back into the mix, back into the rubble of ideas, logic and concerns that determine the course of the speaker’s life.
So, when a line delivers us clearly into a space we can grasp fully, the speaker shines, clear as the headlight on a motorcycle coming at you on the other side of a blind two-lane:
To name this “barren”
rather than an example of a style known for its lack-
luster is to miss the point completely.
— from “Seaside Suicide”
We should rejoice there are
no more plagues, just intervals of misfortune
followed by longer intervals also named misfortune
or referred to as approximately forever and
— from “For My Sister”
Listen to this, the snow falls honestly.
— from “Some Statements Have Been Made”
Just as soon as we receive a clear sense of the speaker, we find him resisting that path, choosing a much more difficult way to present the next thought, the next image. And the reason for this resistance comes, I would argue, in a line at the end of “Evidence of Absence”:
No one judge passes a decisive verdict.
Poem after poem, the speaker recognizes his inability to say it all completely and correctly, that the notion of doing such a thing, of passing a complete and total verdict on the phenomenological universe is, at best, problematic, and, at worst, tragically miscalculated.
What makes this collection outstanding, though, is two-fold: first, we have a speaker so at home with his own discomfort, with the very notion of discomfort, that the presentation of the impossibility of having a singular grasp of the world doesn’t ever become ludicrous. Or, to put it another way, at no point do we feel like we should give up on trying, because the speaker won’t give up on trying to understand his position in the world in which he occupies. Because of his desire to make it make sense—even though he recognizes the utter impracticality of this desire—he remains at once hopeful and hopelessly lost. That tension appears in every poem, and it drives the reader onward with him, to complete the quest, to Sancho Panzo as best we can.
Secondly, and this one is closer to home for me, Lauer consistently, almost systematically, resists any type of received language or phrasing. Each poem presents language in such a way that I find myself realizing the oddity of hearing it only because I’ve never heard that combination of language before. Just a couple of quick examples that do not, by any means, represent the astonishing grasp of tessitura, diction and syntax that Lauer employs:
Not for anything, but even
pleasure felt well enough
is a form that plays itself out
— from “The Revised Script”
After much thoroughness, what prevails
is exhaustion, growing fluorescent lights.
— from “What Prevails”
These are fresh, resistant, intelligent poems, as full of hope as they are despair. In terms of rhetoric, of ideas, of language and of technique, these poems repay the reader each time you decide to return to them. And I think that’s an easy decision to make.
Patrick Whitfill lives and works in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he co-hosts the New Southern Voices Reading Series. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online, 32 Poems, Mid-American Review, Ninth Letter, Unsplendid and other journals.