back toJacket2

Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Singing Through The Echo

Charles Alexander reviews
The Pretext, by Rae Armantrout

Green Integer, 2001. 91 pp., paperback, US $9.95, ISBN: 1-892295-39-3

This piece is 1,200 words or about four printed pages long

Rae Armantrout
Look at the words. A pretext is something put forward as a reason or excuse. It may be present in order to cover the real purpose or object. Armantrout, perversely, may be literal (can the literal be perverse?), in which case pretext is pre-text, before the text. Here the first poem is titled “BIRTHMARK: The Pretext.” (pp. 7–9) The poem immediately following is titled “Writing.” So what’s the pretext? Is it the birthmark, or “Mark,” as the poem within this poem is titled? Is it, as Armantrout writes in the first paragraph: “You want something: that’s the pretext. I recently abandoned a dream narrative called ‘Mark.’ You can see it, since you asked.” Already, in a few sentences and a title, meaning is made opaque, a puzzle is put forward. Is the pretext the birthmark? Is the pretext the fact that “You want something?” Who is you? Who is talking to this you? A pretext is a reason: because or since. Here are three moments from three consecutive paragraphs.

You can see it, since you asked.
That’s not very interesting or it’s only interesting because it’s real.
Because of what she called it, the mark has never bothered me.

What is all this about? It turns out to be about fitting and not fitting, and this first piece ends with thoughts about Marilyn Monroe, or how the speaker, as a child, thought of Marilyn. Marilyn whom everyone loved, but whom this speaker saw as horrific, as someone whose being makes the speaker think that “Something was inadequate. The squeaky little girl voice would never be able to articulate all that matter.” Yet funny, too, “Funny how you can be excited without fitting in anywhere. But I’ve gone off on a tangent when what I wanted to do was swallow my own pretext.” And in that ending sentence Armantrout has done just that, swallowed her own pretext. Swallowed but not digested. Finished but not fit. Indeed, while she may not be able to “articulate all that matter,” she can and does provide a pretext for it. Her world is one in which things don’t fit and much is inadequate; in short, it is a world that feels real, in a language that invents inclusion without foreclosure. Because of what language calls it, the world is constituted.

In a world constituted by language, what can we do? Write. The poem “Writing” comments, about a joke told by a clerk, that “What he can’t know is that I hate body language.” The physicality of the world is unattainable. All we have are pieces of language, having moved from Emily Dickinson’s “My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun,” to Armantrout’s “My life had stood, a little speech, a clipped coupon.” Can we do anything against the world as “We hunker down / with short pencils / in front of the ticket booth.”? (pp. 10–11)

In “Writing,” the clerk is telling a joke about “our common inability to occupy two planes.” In the next poem, “Police Business,” a suspect saying “I love you” causes us “to lose our places.” In “Stream Of,” we play “disembodied peek-a-boo.” In “Performers” one can separate from one’s desires. In “Her References” a person has exceeded the spaces allowed for personalization. In “The Past,” people may come first, but they are outlasted by categories. Sense of place and sense of being in place is disrupted, rather easily, when it’s language that creates it in the first place, or, as a voice says in “Articulation,” “Without articulation / there’s no sense of place?” This is a definition of identity, related to Stein’s “I am I because my little dog knows me,” and to Creeley’s “Whenever I speak, I speaks.” Here,

Just between
appearance and what
something else was —

or elsewise?

I mean I

(The Inside, p. 27)

I is both subject and object of meaning, yet it is also impossible to recover or recuperate an I between appearance and whatever is other than appearance.

Throughout the book, placement and displacement, a sense of barely being here, or barely being. Flickers of light only; mankind can only bear so much reality, she can only apprehend a very little of it. There are no bearings. What are our moments made of?

Junkmail, each day:

(Scape, pp. 28–29)

Fragments of non-meaning, but we had better catch any possibility of actual connection.

“Make sure
it’s not important!”


And what is important, with what are we left?

A breath as a place —


Tenuous and dissolving.

as the sea
throws a loose shawl
over its margin.


Going back and forth, holding nothing in this place of margins on which we hunker down “with short pencils / in front of the ticket booth” (Writing, p. 10)

Who made this wish?


Certainly not us, probably not anyone we can name.

To postpone withdrawal
by spreading oneself thin,


If we’re not too deeply involved with anything, it won’t hurt so much.

to sputter and go out


So goes the breath, the sea’s grasp, the night sky’s signal to astronomers, the voice, everything that we are, everything that we write.

Camus, in his essay on Sisyphus, argues that human life as absurdity only becomes tragedy when we are entirely cognizant of the absurdity. Yet not entirely tragedy, for if we realize the meaninglessness of our plight, we can look at it with laughing scorn. It is the truth, but it need not control us. Armantrout’s vision, equally dark, is also not cause for despair, yet there is not, as in Camus, a kind of triumph over circumstance. We are in it and of it, and there is no way out, yet in a complete recognition of our sputterings, we at least survive with a bitter knowledge that allows laughter, a comedy something like that found in Beckett.

A little girl
was paid to sing
“The Good Ship Momentum.”

Paid in mother-love?

Space temps as an echo.

Just one
knock at a door
when usually it’s three.

(Now, pp. 90–91)

There is a hint, or more than a hint, of goofiness in living in the world. It may not seem like much, but it erupts into infinite possibility. We can take that small gift, and rather than give in to the emptiness, the ever-echo that merely repeats us back to us — we can sing through it, and listen for something else.

What does it say?
What does it mean to say

(Now, pp. 90–91)

We can not know what it means, but we must ask. If the asking takes us to the limits of both our despair and our possibility, it may become poetry. If we are very lucky, it may become Rae Armantrout’s exquisite poetry of questioning the void. Armantrout is generally associated with language poetry, but if we widen our lens, we might as well think of her alongside Wyatt, Dickinson, Oppen — other poets who compose intelligent, tough, uncompromising, and immaculately constructed lyrics concerned with who and what we are, and how we are in the world. Armantrout pays attention to here , to us , for

In Heaven there is no want

and we are Wants.

(Size, pp. 84–85)

Jacket 18 — August 2002  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Charles Alexander and Jacket magazine 2002
The URL address of this page is