In A Hotel in Belgium, Brett Fletcher Lauer’s debut, the pastoral is deceptive. Although many of Lauer’s poems are rooted in landscape—a pond, a mountain path, a rhetorical Garden of Eden—these markers function less as literal settings modeled by Romantic sensibility than as accessories, loose staging for Lauer’s meditations. In Lauer’s creation myth, for instance, “a white-noise machine putters, each serpent continues eating each serpent’s tail, an acorn converts to oak, and the river is resetting.” As a result, the pastoral becomes a site for exposing temporal processes and exploring the tensions between solitude and connection: “All I wanted was to take you somewhere, / to be lonely.” Lauer frequently evokes this ambivalence with a simple gesture, the conjunction “or,” which functions as a hinge, destabilizing his naturalistic framework:
Temperatures change, it rains,
or maybe the timeline was free of precipitation. Recall the walks around a man-
made lake with you,
a hand held out indefinitely in the wind.
Everything was almost real or a type of real…
At times the poems feel weighed down by the clauses that pile on top of one another, each fork on the trail leading to yet another fork. The contradictions and revisions inherent in this kind of cataloguing suggest an arbitrariness in even our most personal or particular circumstances and, by extension, the language we use to describe them. This instability, however, also results in a kind of liberation, an openness to possibility, and a rigorous imaginative logic.
And yet Lauer’s best poems depart from naturalism, employing pseudo-corporate vernacular—the “business park,” the “lying machine,” our “comprehensive yet unavailable data”—to embody late capitalist longing. The excellent “Work Product” begins, “I am here breathing / heavy into one end / of the receiver // in order to reassure you / I am here / on one end breathing.” Although the speaker, a telemarketer type, is physically remote, the poem ends with a ringing phone: “Line two, it is your mother / and you are crying again. / Don’t cry. I am touching // your shoulder.” This impetus to touch, set against technology’s limits, is galvanizing; in the face of “no signal,” a “perfect absence” and “a shovel un- / powered by imagination,” Lauer’s speakers nonetheless gesture toward intimacy, toward the imaginative. These attempts, his poems suggest, may be as good as we can do. Indeed, they may have to be enough.