Featured Poem: Alice in the Wasteland

In Ann Lauterbach‘s eighth book of poetry, Or to Begin Again, she presents a long narrative poem: “Alice in the Wasteland.” As the title implies, the poem is inspired by Lewis Carroll’s great heroine and T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem “The Waste Land.”

You needn’t have read “The Waste Land” in order to appreciate “Alice in the Wasteland.” But I’m telling you that you will enjoy the poem that much more if you are familiar with Eliot’s noisy work of emotional starvation. Likewise, readers who are familiar with Carroll’s Wonderland kind of language will revel in what Lauterbach has created in her verse.

Below is a taste from “Alice in the Wasteland.” In this selection, she’s having a discussion with the moon:

You have very low self-esteem, Alice said. Everyone here thinks the world of you;
you are always mentioned in poems and songs.
I know. It makes me cringe with shame. Moon this moon that, lovers and
moonlight, nocturnes and sonnets. It’s a total cliche. Stick an r in and you get
Alice stood up, casting a long black shadow.
Look how tall I am!
I will never be tall, answered the Moon, and disappeared behind a heavy cloud,
erasing Alice’s shadow and sending her back into the total dark.

Lauterbach uses similar elements to both Eliot and Carroll in the treatment of her long poem – a journey through the seasons, discussions with potentially unsavory characters as well as the voices in your head (or not, as the case may be), perception and reflection – and leaves it up to her smart reader to deduce what’s going on and who’s saying what. She even channels some Jabberwocky language.

As in Eliot’s poem, it is sometimes a challenge in “Alice in the Wasteland” to tell the difference between what is spoken (and who says it) and what is written. That method is what Lauterbach is particularly exploring in this poetry collection (not completely easy or accessible as a whole) and in this narrative poem. There are silly Mad Hatter kind of conversations that leave your head spinning, and other dialog that can’t help but make you think, “Dang. I wish I’d written that.”

I devoured this poem on my first read-through, delighted with the language at times and completely frustrated by obscure references at other moments – but I was willing to let go of those frustrations because the poem was so delicious.

For me, the a-ha moment came (spoiler alert!) when I realized the truth about the main character of Lauterbach’s poem… she wasn’t the Alice I assumed she was all along. Here I was, imagining a girl in a blue dress and Mary Janes wandering through a post-war world, only to discover that this poem’s Alice is actually a modern-day Alice who finds herself in variations of Wonderland and the Waste Land simultaneously.

I was annoyed by this deception while also thinking it pure genius – after all, at no point did Lauterbach say this was Alice in Wonderland. This reader just assumed it. The poem takes on completely different dimensions rereading it from the start having uncovered this illusion.

In all three works – “Alice in the Wasteland,” “The Waste Land,” and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – the writers are trying to hit the readers with an experience of language, rather than language which is about something. Does that make sense? It’s OK if it doesn’t… but then again, poetry can be that way sometimes.

Have you read any poems that reference Alice? If so, please share the titles here so we can all get that much more of a taste of Wonderland.


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