Persuasions of Fall by Ann Lauinger
(The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2004)
A black and white photo of squash leaves, appropriately titled “Squash,” dominates the cover of Ann Lauinger’s Persuasions of Fall, winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry in 2003, the year the prize was first given; [Footnote 1] Keith Bartholomew is its photographer, currently a professor in the College of Architecture + Planning Urban Planning Program, at the University of Utah, also the collection’s publisher. Squash leaves are wide leaves, their shapes almost attempting to form a more circular appearance. But this attempt is simply an attempt and only culminates in approximate circularity. Certainly, convincing circularity, here, isn’t an indication of failure but rather the success of its obligation to evolution, to simply have a geometrical appearance of near-circularity. Visually, the edges of squash leaves have a soft roughness its own evolutionary identity has imposed, as though to defy the idea of visually perfect circularity, in order to design an imperfect but appealing squash leaf-form.
One might assume this evolutionary defiance is also true in other aspects of squash. The squash plant is one of those that somehow resist the idea of vertical, ascending growth, the kind of growth that struggles against gravity to achieve a certain height above ground; instead, squash plants prefer a more horizontal growth and fruit production, moving almost semi-rhizomatically, spreading its leaves and body outwards, as though extending its presence to the roots of other plants, in the name of plant solidarity. There is something about squash, then, that prefers the comfort of earth elements, the more subdued aspects of those elements, the creatures on ground, the little, wormy, crawling critters, not to mention the color of soil, diverse combinations of dark, grey, brown, and any permutations of darker colors usually amenable for plant growth. That’s why the idea of using squash leaves here, as the book’s cover achieves an accidental, if not conscious, congruence about the idea of fall in the book’s title, the season when things are stereotypically perceived to slow or quiet down, lay low, the way brown leaves are when they start to fall, obeying the laws of gravity, reaching for the ground, a space for rest, temporal or final.
Certainly, one’s immediate association of the term ‘fall,’ in the title, is fall as specific season of the year; but, too, the term can be applied to other things, entities, ideas, or values about falling. The extended meanings of the term can, indeed, expand into states of moving or progressing towards conditions of eventual relaxation. However, when the idea of ‘persuasion’ is attached to ‘fall’, ‘fall’ acquires added layers of signification.
Thus, the notion of ‘persuasions’ of fall can also alert readers that there are gravities and determinations to pay attention to, for instance the gravity of melancholy that perhaps pervades in the fall season, the gravitation towards details in a condition of melancholy or otherwise, physical details that could be magnified in the process of slowing down, or the details that are more fantastical, abstract, those that are nourished in the forces of consciousness and, too, unconsciousness. Here, I’m suggesting that ‘persuasions of fall’ can be about evolutions into another state or other states of being, such as those progressions in human intimacies that can be approximately characterized as progressive states of falling in love.
The collection is divided in two parts. In the first part, the reader is ushered into a somewhat gray world, tricky prisms of grayness, flickering illuminations in grayness. The second part hints us into sensibilities of lightness that light deflects and reflects in the hard ice of winter, a calcification of intimate things, of preservations that’d soon melt into spring, the new in the new year.
“The Company of Fools” welcomes the reader in Part I, with the sound of frogs: “the small boom of frogs / in spring woods” (3). The noise isn’t necessarily deafening, but the cacophony can be annoying, especially if we feel “amphibious slime” (3) around our ankles, as we wade through a “glassy pond” (3) in these woods. A reader whose hobby or vocation involves sound collection and engineering – for a sound library/archive – may find this amphibian boom appealing for his/her next music record. Although considered noise by human standards, this boom is the reader’s initial instrument of displacement, of falling away from the frenzy of civilization, away from schedules, into a state of meditation, to be part of a ritual, and not to undermine the quiet simplicities of the season. And this first poem is, of course, not about frogs, and the springy woods, but rather about reconsidering tightness, loosening it a bit. Lauinger asks us to applaud this “small boom of frogs” (3) for “complicating green” (3); she’s suggesting a critical dialectic in the experience of taking some time to listen to this small boom and the green, the grasses, or trees around this sound. In some ways, she’s assuming that the reader inhabits a world where nature has been marginalized, where nature has been replaced by the mind-space of culture, especially the materiality of culture expressed in architecture, literature, sports, technology, or even religion. But she ups the ante a bit and suggests that we
Praise the broken eggs and praise
whoever dropped them.
Smooth virtue deserves a smash-
and what pleasure’s more reliable
than a decent omelet? (3)
Virtues are, indeed, fragile, easily broken like eggs. But Lauinger’s humor leaks here, because she’s not necessarily advocating that we become virtue’s hard-core villains, but that we smash virtues now and then, and enjoy them as “decent omelet” (3). Is she advocating that we tell a lie now and then, elide the idea of telling the truth a bit, and enjoy the short rebellion from being staunchly virtuous? In a way, yes, perhaps because our humanity needs it now and then. But she’s giving this suggestion to people who have a sense of balance and equilibrium, those who understands the decent in “decent omelet” (3).
“Fallingwater,” the second poem, also takes us into nature, into elements and forms in geography, that’d soon find harmony in the mind of culture re-shaping nature to become harmonious with culture, thus exploring a sense of balance and equilibrium in this relationship. The title refers to a particular structure designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1936, in Pennsylvania, for Edgar J. Kaufmann. Epistolary in form, the piece dramatizes the architect’s appeal to his client about, injecting courage in the client to trust the architect who’d construct a structure on an unconventional location, and, too, to help the client envision the unique experience of living in a house on “the waterfall in the woods” (4):
The house I want to build asks daring –
not of me, Kaufmann, but of you.
I shall cantilever concrete slabs
over falls and stream, layered like birthday cake.
My job’s a conjuror’s trick, mere cunning.
The question, Kaufmann, is: have you the courage
not simply to look at the waterfalls, but to live with them? (4)
The last line is one of two excerpts Lauinger has borrowed from Wright’s actual correspondence to Kaufmann. And the last line can be the highest note in this letter of persuasion. The designer is trying to persuade his client to fall into ‘Fallingwater,’ be in it, assimilate in the experience it can offer, marry it. Without checking any archive or historical documents on this project, the tone in this passage – and the poem itself – suggests the client’s critical doubts about funding to build this structure, but that Wright was successful in convincing his client to pursue the project, because of the architect’s persuasiveness, which Lauinger also suggests in this poem’s tone. Thus, the poem, too, can be about Wright himself, about the persuasions of ambition, a critical instrument in transforming nature into a dimension of culture.
In “Ashes” – Part I’s last poem – we are ushered into the more intimate aspects of falling, taking us into a chamber of mourning: a personal box. The ashes here are what is left behind by a loved one who just died, specifically things in that person’s personal box: “binoculars, bridge deck and scorepads, scented soap” (34); the poem’s voice enumerates them like holding the ashes of that loved one and letting them fall for the wind to catch. But then the voice asks and confirms: “Where will you turn / up next? Always, there’s something left to burn” (34). The question is heavy; but it cannot burn itself, because it cannot die, the fire of love has always “something left to burn,” any remembrance, but not the condition of still being in love, even after that loved one’s final, physical departure.
As Part I ends with somber, funeral air with subtle affirmations of love, Part II opens with a more springy note, almost the way Part I started, filled with amphibian sonic boom; Part II starts with “Birdsong.” Again, there’s the equation here between the visuality of green in nature and the sounds of nature: “BIRDSONG, / glaze-smooth / reasonless / green on the skin, / held us-“(37). Here, Lauinger installs polished texture and specific color to a birdsong. The avian melody captivates the listeners (“held us”), a “glaze-smooth” composition that hasn’t been through the grind of reason, or couldn’t have been produced by reason, avian reason, that is. The absence of reason in the production of this composition is justified, from the element that produced the song, the bird; but reason still occupies a role in the production of the birdsong, from the context of the listener. The notion of ‘birdsongs’, here, is an auditory production of a poet’s observations and sense of music, a poet humanizing, or even poeticizing that which is part of nature’s primeval and basic elements, the act of breathing, the very process of exhaling and inhaling. The sensitive ears of humans hear song in varieties of bird sounds, but birds are just living their lives, and, I believe, do not have intentions of serenading the human soul, because the sounds they’re making is the effect of vibration in the process of breathing.
Now Lauinger further elevates birdsong: “in a state of / suspended / interpretation / until abruptly / like all oracles / it ceased” (37). Indeed, the poet hungers for interpretation. Entranced by the song, the poet seems caught in a brief state of suspended delight and invests insight in the beautiful sound. In many ways, we can assume the birdsong transported the listener to a state that resembles something spiritually enlightening, even oracular. But the song stopped, and appears to banish, abruptly, without any hint of being in the poet’s immediate auditory premises again. The listener’s temporal relationship with this ‘composition’ is, therefore, severed, as though it fell persuasively into a crevice, that of silence, the kind of silence that denies spiritual advancement, not the silence in meditation but that of undesirable, empty silence
Also in Part II, “Fireworks Over Sing Sing” has a subtle similarity with “Fallingwater” perhaps primarily because of the – conscious or unconscious – involvement of a building structure to explore a specific intersection in nature and culture. While in “Fallingwater” we experience this nexus through the cunning of clever, calculated design solutions, in “Fireworks…” we sense this in the inner world of someone incarcerated in the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, looking outside from his cell (“C-15-94”) “despi[sing] freedom’s shameless appetite for easy rapture and release” (44). It’s safe to imagine or assume that fireworks flares could’ve alerted this particular inmate with temporal fantasies of freedom, or childhood memories from family and friends, especially, because the display seem to happen on the 4th of July, Independence Day. Instead, fireworks, to him, appear to represent “freedom’s shameless appetite for easy rapture”(44). Certainly, those who’re not incarcerated do not necessarily share this view of freedom’s “easy rapture[s]”, because those who belong to the large majority – who are also and mostly tax-payers – have an approximate understanding that freedom is not at all easy raptures, but rather a conglomeration or collage of overlapping processes, methods, and mechanisms that guards and inspires social and personal responsibilities, to preserve not necessarily legal order but fundamental desire and instinct for a sense of general social order and harmony. One can argue that Lauinger gives this particular inmate this perception of freedom, because he has been through the grind of prison-life, has experienced the darknesses in his cell, and may have advanced a critical inner evolution, after periods of remorse. But then Lauinger gives a glimpse of this inmate’s knowledge that perhaps only an inmate’s imagination understands:
[…] He’s not fooled:
adults or kids, they’re primed down there for havoc.
He’s known the bullet’s sweet exploding shock
but lost his taste for mayhem, as for magic. (44)
The passage suggests this inmate is incarcerated for taking another life, say, in the context of self-defense, for trying to preserve his own life, through a “bullet’s sweet exploding shock.” On the other hand, the poet argues his case could happen to anybody, because “adults or kids” are “primed […] for havoc,” and have the basic, inherent instincts for brutality that can find expression in situations that demands them; thus synonymously, they fall for the logic of nature, abandon their sense of civility, or whatever equipment they have that controls their capacity for violence and savagery, specific to their personalities. And so, these ‘fireworks of independence,’ in the end, are hollow, because they could not properly not stand for freedom in independence, because they cannot “bring down […] walls,” walls thicker than Sing Sing’s, those prisons inside us: the forces in us hard to control. Now the notion of “primed down there for havoc” certainly suggests an incarcerated drawing a link between the world outside and inside prison; but the prisoner underlines the gulf in these two worlds with a tone of distance in “down there.” But I speculate that “down there” may not really be that far, in the context of our media saturated environment. Certainly, the economy of civil social relations and negotiations imposes systems and forms of surveillance that attempts to secure civil human behavior, and prevent people from going to jail. But there are elements in that economy that display tendencies of glamorizing the incarcerated, quietly exoticizing the culture of danger and violence in the prison system itself, tendencies that may influence adults and kids – especially impressionable kids and teens – be ‘primed for havoc’; these tendencies appear to pervade in the diverse tributaries of popular culture, especially nourished by the music, film, and television industries. Often, the main avenues of this process of glamorization are the realm of arguments that protects entertainment within the confines of art; thus, in our media saturated imagination we’ve heard or seen in film and television stories about life imitating art, or rather life falling for the persuasions of art.
The collection’s last poem “New Year’s Day” takes us not into the crowded and noisy celebration of that day, but rather something quieter, into a drive “to beat the first snow” (68). There’s no suggestion here that the couple in the car are about to join their friends or family later, after the drive, but just them both celebrating the new year:
[…] We passed
speeding under the low, quilted sky
like bride and groom escaping the wedding guests,
ducking heads and holding collars close,
impatient for the embrace of ordinariness (68)
The car’s speedometer appears to be as revved up as the rush and throbbings in the couple’s hearts, for being together in this time of the year, isolated from everybody, into a space of ‘ordinariness.’ Here, to be in a state of ‘embracing ordinariness,’ in many ways, elevates ordinariness into something not quite ordinary, a space that perhaps is more conducive to acts of renewal, acts such as those intimated in the company of someone dear to one’s heart and soul.
There’s something incisively tender about the pieces in this collection, like the tenderness in the middle of the human eye, quiet, peaceful, the visual foundation of being, but sucking with violence information from the world. Look away from that center, and you witness the emphasis of chaos and disruptions stringing themselves together, like polished cultured pearls.
(Footnote 1: http://faculty.arch.utah.edu/bartholomew/CV_Main_Nov2008.pdf. This is Bartholomew’s CV -- 9th page mentions the photograph included in this book.)
Michael Caylo-Baradi lives in Southern California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in XCP:Streetnotes, Tertulia Magazine, OurOwnVoice, and PopMatters.com. He occasionally contributes op-ed pieces to The Daily Californian and the Los Angeles Daily News.