Ann Lauterbach, And for Example (New York: Penguin, 1994)
the poem, then a brief essay
Rancor of the Empirical
A lavish pilgrim, her robes unbound,
checks into a nearby hotel.
Let us spread the wealth.
Let us speak in such a way
we are understood, as a shadow
is understood to assuage these prisms
and these mercurial clasps. She was told
yes and she was told no
which is how she became excessive, spilling
over the sequestered path, her wild garments
She took pills against rain.
She slept under tinfoil.
In that country, there were no heroes
to invent a way to fill the hours
with parables of longing, so her dreams
were blank. Sometimes she imagined
voices which led to her uneven gait
and to her partial song. Once she was seen
running. A child said he saw her fly
low over the back meadow and into the pines, her
feet raving in wind. The child
was punished for lying, made to eat ashes
in front of the congregation. The priest said,
You have made a petty story. Now enter duration.
I love this poem by Ann Lauterbach, which speaks to the sad consequences of the repression of desire and the imagination, with echoes of Puritanism and the Platonic distrust of poetry. The allegorical “lavish pilgrim” enters a new country where no poets are born, or else if they are (like the visionary boy who is able to see the spirit of desire), they are punished by puritanical clergy, made to “eat ashes” (associated with death and penitence) and “enter duration,” presumably a monochromatic place of temporal stasis. There are no “heroes” of the imagination to compose “parables of longing” and unleash the latent desires of a populace.
This pilgrim reflects the consequences of repressed desire in the people among whom she would “spread the wealth.” When she checks into the hotel, she is told “yes” and “no,” binary commands that represent society’s order, and that do not admit the wealth of possibilities other than that rigid legalistic choice. Her wealth thus rejected, she roams a “sequestered path,” where stifled desire manifests itself as “excessive” and destructive, “her wild garments / lacerating stones”—neurotic behaviour, formerly categorized as “hysterical,” resulting from anxiety caused by the denial of feelings and thoughts held to be taboo within a community.
Since this community has banished poetry, the pilgriim’s dreams are correspondingly “blank.” Thus the pilgrim is a mirror for the health of the community’s fulfillment of desire and creativity. Put another way, the allegorical figure of the pilgrim represents the latent but unsatisfied desires of the townspeople.
The manifestation of repression in which the pilgrim “imagine[s] / voices,” alludes to the Salem witch hunt, in which people’s desires, deemed wicked by the community, spilled over into accusations of others. The accuser’s “wicked” thoughts could thus be exorcised by being projected onto others. Such a manifestation of eros denied cripples the pilgrim, who now walks with an “uneven gait” and cuts off her song, which is only “partial.”
And when a child, who has not yet been thoroughly warped by Puritan asceticism, claims to have seen the pilgrim “fly[ing / low over the back meadow and into the pines,” the priest censors the budding young poet through punishment. I imagine that in doing so, the priest has either replicated in the child his own predilection to deny desire and accuse others of the very thing that he has tamped down within himself, or he has created a rebel who will hereafter seek strategies of liberation from society’s bitter injunctions.