Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh
sheenaghpugh

Review of The Aesthetics of Breath by Charles Lauder, pub. V Press 2019


Charles G Lauder Jr, as one might guess from his name, is one of those deracinated poets, an American now living in Britain. I know several poets in this position – Tamar Yoseloff, Barbara Marsh, Katy Giebenhain, among others – and I always find them fascinating because of their permanent in-between-ness. They see the place where they now live with an outsider's eye, which tends to be sharper, less inclined to see what it expects or is inured to. If they go back home, or write about where "home" was, they see with the selective and poignant eye of memory. It all makes things more interesting.

The first poem, "Sir Walter Raleigh of Bexar County, Texas", zooms right in on displacement: the speaker taking his half-English children to visit their American grandparents. He sees his children through his parents' eyes, their "chalky faces wild as dandelion and nettle", and America through those of his children, stumped by huge portions of unfamiliar food, delighted by the extravagance of Christmas lights, puzzled by the notion of going to church. He himself, now neither entirely one thing nor the other, may well feel "I’ve lost my bearings".

Not all the poems by any means are rooted in personal displacement, but even when they are not, they often play with different viewpoints – Einstein and his wife in separate rooms, never really together because most of his mind is always elsewhere; the disconnect, in " Family Legend Has It", between how a man recalls his childhood and how his family recall it. There is an uncertainty, an ambiguity, about how things really are, as opposed to how they seem to the individual.

What were boulders in the path, hyenas
hiding in the bush with raised claws,
turn out to be trainers, yesterday’s pants,
the cat’s tail.

("In Our House")

This ambiguity is perhaps mirrored in his freedom with lineation; not everything has to be left-hand justified and extra spaces sometimes serve for punctuation.

His use of language, though, inclines rather to exactness: the "corpulent flesh" of peaches, the impending birth of a first child:

like prying a crowbar between the iron doors
of our shut-tight lives and tossing in
a grenade.

("Inhale").

It isn't always as sharp as this; the "crow-stitched night" in "Thieves" is a bit too Dylanesque and the image doesn't really work for me either; it's briefly amusing to think of the birds picking over the compost heap as detectives, but in what sense are people composting their own rubbish "thieves"?

This, however, is an uncustomary lapse. In the fascinating long poem "Incarnations", imagery and language are pitch-perfect, chronicling the story of a couple. The separate strands of their lives weave together, forming something new, but there is divergence as well as rapprochement, a sense that individuals never wholly become part of each other, but strive toward "different peaks with different views". Its ending, hinting that if this couple's ashes are to be scattered where they were happiest, as the custom is, they will again be separated, sounds as if it ought to be sad but isn't, because the poem's cosmic beginnings made it clear that everything is in flux and will re-form yet again. "Incarnations" strikes me as a terrific poem, turning personal experience into something universal in the way that poems should do, but so often don't.
Tags: book reviews, poetry
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