The Aesthetics of Breath by Charles G. Lauder Jr. Review by James Fountain.

Reviewed ByJames Fountain

James Fountain reviews The Aesthetics of Breath by Charles G Lauder

The Aesthetics of Breath
  • Paperback: 68 pages
  • Publisher: V. Press (October 14, 2019)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 191650521X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1916505216

Though a technical excellence inhabits this collection, there are times when the speaker in these poems displays a frustratingly indecipherable fragmentation of self. As readers, we need to be able to follow a poet’s mind throughout the course of a collection, but clarity is often lacking in key sections of Charles G Lauder Jr’s debut collection.

The poet opens with a series of essays into history, where historical figures are name-dropped, the speaker in a seeming attempt to assemble a sense of self. Lauder originates from Texas, and the collection opens with ‘Sir Walter Raleigh of Bexar County, Texas’, the speaker inhabiting the English explorer’s mind: 

[…] I magnus explorer buccaneer spy

blown in from the cold of the New World

       after seven eight years

       with natives half-naked half-crazed.

Though the versification is adept, an awkward sense of being lectured on the importance of history pervades the opening, as ‘Finding Time’ (sub-title ‘Bern May 1905’), the longer poem ‘A Short History of San Antonio’, and ‘Napoleon in the Bath’, follow in succession. Though imaginative insights occur, such as ‘ambition rises with the steam’, for Napoleon as he bathes, we are by this point lost in Lauder’s obscurity. 

In the middle section, a clarity begins to form. ‘The Devil in Love’ links neatly with ‘Tree of Desire’, though too-obvious metaphors stagnate this initial emergence, introducing a string of joltingly stereotyped figures: 

[…] a suicide starts reading Anna Karenina

because she won’t have this chance again

an alcoholic stoppers the bottle 

counts his calories […]

In retrospect, it is possible to see the caricatures featured in ‘The Devil in Love’ as aspects on the road to self-discovery, but they feel opaque, and the poet’s technical adeptness fails to redeem an overriding lack of clarity.

A few pages on, ‘Rose’ depicts sexual miscommunication, Lauder closing with a broodingly focussed narrative lens on the subject’s ‘sealed labial folds’. In accordance with the collection’s overarching focus on disconnection, dysfunctional familial relations are portrayed in ‘Family Legend Has It’, though a use of italics to differentiate narrator from speaker dulls the impact:

he went to West Point to get direction

              but lasted only two years

I got good grades 

because it was expected.

The reader is still swimming through the speaker’s murky narrative waters here, the rivulets of which continue through ‘Note to Self’ and ‘In the Days of No Fear’. 

In ‘Finding My Way’, we are finally allowed to come up for air, with the depiction of a brief love affair between the speaker and his ‘sister’s roommate’ from Leicester. Suddenly, the reader is on solid ground, and the poet fuses technicality with clarity, thereby finding his voice:

[…] her hometown unfolding like a dream,

any sense of direction willingly surrendered

to tramlines beneath the tarmac, leading 

to a bed we feel we’ve shared many times before.

The newfound sense of certainty a new love brings is described in long, gently sweeping free verse brushstrokes, and it is here that we find Lauder at his most palatable.

In ‘Incarnations’ the reader is again transported to ‘Texas Hill Country’. The speaker announces he is ‘searching for some one or some thing,/though I don’t know I’m looking.’ We once more encounter a beautiful, wistful love lyric, which is where Lauder excels:

                                […] We never say 

when or where or how we’ll meet up,

only that we will, down along magnetic

migrating lines below the radar of our ken.

Connecting present-day Texas with past, returning to the location of collection’s opening poem, the poets’ intent becomes refreshingly obvious. Depictions of secret romantic liaisons have of course been handed down through centuries of poetry, but this is tragic, an elaborate scenario imagined by the speaker, highlighting the joyless, near-isolation which twenty-first century life often imposes upon individuals. The poem ends elegiacally:

We are ashes folding up like newspapers

against the wind, pulled apart and scattered,

mine among the stones of Castlerigg

yours on southern California beaches

because that’s where you’ve been happiest.

The twelve-poem title sequence, ‘The Aesthetics of Breath’, is a disappointing return to opacity at the end of the book. We are presented with a series of half-finished, fragmented stories whose meaning is difficult to decipher. Though Roland Barthes claims the reader to be a co-producer, the task to complete the gaps once more becomes a struggle. The sequence sections are intended to guide us, and obviously-titled: ‘1: Inhale’ (about a birth), ‘2: Thieves’, ‘3: Google Earth’ (loss of direction), ‘4: The Color of Mourning’ (grief), and so on. Yet the reader could be forgiven in finding difficulty weaving the disparate threads of narrative provided to form a meaningful whole. We are left, as the final lines of Lauder’s collection suggest, to: ‘reason amidst/a deceiving land of shadow’.

‘These Days of Growing Darkness’ is consistent with an increasingly apocalyptic trend as the collection nears its crescendo. Prophetically, Lauder pre-empts crises such as the devastating Covid-19 pandemic:

Though we know it inevitable, we forget

How quickly the light disappears

When the clocks change.

The lamps come out to ease the bleakness.

The wonderful suggestiveness yet crystalline clarity of these opening lines serve to iron out the earlier nervous opacity of the collection. Without doubt, Lauder is technically adept, expertly deploying assonance, alliteration and rhythm throughout, but these considerable powers are best harnessed in these later poems through an increased clarity of expression.

James Fountain

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