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Rob Stanton reviews

Up to Speed, by Rae Armantrout

80pp.Wesleyan University Press. US$13.95. 0819566985 paper, US$28.00. 0819566977 cloth

Thinking about time is uncanny, because it takes place in time. The ‘present’ is an amorphous period that contains everything that appears to be happening ‘right now’ — including the awareness that things are happening ‘right now’. How to capture, and express, the experience of existing in time? Up to Speed — Rae Armantrout’s latest collection, and arguably her most coherent and incisive to date — engages with such Woolfian conundrums on its own terms and in an engagingly un-dogmatic fashion. Each poem plays out as a new investigation.

The opening, and title, poem is a case in point. The title itself — recontextualised management speak — figures parity of knowledge as the achieving of an ideal momentum, a promise that the opening appears to deliver:

Streamline to instantaneous
voucher in/voucher out

The rather faceless, bureaucratic ‘system’ this ‘streamlining’ creates — ‘in’ and ‘out’ interchangeable — is immediately tied to literary ideas (ideals?) of ‘fate’ and inescapable destiny:

The plot winnows.

The Sphinx
wants me to guess.

If all narrative thus tapers to a point, and both language and ‘God’ are too preoccupied to help broaden the perspective (‘But the word is / way back, / show-boating’), our Oedipus-like narrator is forced to turn questioner herself:

Are you the come-on
and the egress?

One who hobbles by

Not yet?

Neither encouragement nor exit, these concluding questions are a typical Armantrout gesture, reconvening hesitantly the point of equitable velocity and knowledge promised by the title on some horizon-line indefinitely postponed — ‘not yet’.

And I have barely touched here on all the further resonances generated by this singularly dense poem: narrative form as possible limit to personal identity; the specifically ‘domestic’ nature of Oedipus’s tragedy; light in both its physical and divine aspects; individual mortality in the face of language; the implicit gendering of ‘the quest for knowledge’ — only to mention the first few that come to mind. When things look to be becoming particularly oppressive — ‘hobbling’ — Armantrout ends a section on the single word ‘Whirlette!’, an (ironic?) outburst of dervish-like energy and chaos.

Such sudden, unexpected reversals are a trademark. Armantrout’s poems — short lines, short stanzas, short paragraphs, short sections — have always drawn attention to what Zukofsky calls the ‘little words’ and how they work together. Up to Speed offers several masterclasses on how to ring the changes on sound and detail at a ‘microcosmic’ level:

a projected
future-perfect retrospect,



Was this the meaning
of the warning in the Garden?

(‘End Times’)

Bird rides wire —
a probe
in the cold stir.


One poem, ‘Sake’, seems to be organised, formally, around the tonal shifts that italicising words can bring about:

“Why do Princesses
Caroline and Stephanie

always marry
the wrong man?”

The added emphasis emphasises the implied repetition, the reiteration of quotation — ‘common knowledge’ becoming axiomatic.

The faux-axiom itself — the apparently decisive statement that flies apart on closer inspection — is a third Armantrout speciality utilised and developed in this volume:

Pattern recognition
was our first response

to loneliness.

(‘Upper World’)

The opposite
of nothingness

is direction


(The whole being
of the sophisticated person
is an answer to questions
not immediately posed.)


And — a personal favourite this (and utterly mind-bending still, even on repeated approaches):

The fundamental
stuff of matter

is the Liar’s


Armantrout has always been interested in scientific discourse — biology, zoology, sociology, physics — not only for what it can tell her about the world, but also — as the above examples show — for what its authoritative and/ or investigative ‘voice’ can bring into her poems. In her recent work, these appropriations have taken on a more integrated, symbiotic relationship. Physics in the twentieth century has had many counter-intuitive, untenable-seeming things to tell us about the nature of space and time and of their interrelation. Armantrout often seems to be running her own parallel experiments:

Luxuriant and spurious code

as art,
as if we were meant to think,

“Beautiful!” —
so we do

and a ripple
travels in one spot.

(‘End Times’)

We’ve re-authorized silence
as a bridge
between two notes —

so that we’re always
“about to” or
“have just.”

(‘En Route’)

I stare at the edge

until the word

comes up
where I thought it might.


In highlighting the questing, metaphysical qualities of Armantrout’s work it is easy to overlook the sheer range of stuff — cultural detritus, overheard insights, unsettling landscapes, everyday oddness — that she manages to work into her poems. Readers of this volume will find (in no particular order): ‘Solemn, / blunt flash of sun / off the window / of a Coors Light / truck’ (‘Form’); ‘The swollen, yellow / head of Tweety-Bird / / now offered / at the border’ (‘Currency’); a cutting bit of film-criticism (‘Middle Men’); lines horribly pertinent in an American election year (‘When we come back, / the heir apparent / / crafts / his solid victory’ — ‘Solid’ — written presumably about Bush Jr.’s last ‘victory’); ‘I Get Around’ by The Beach Boys as an epistemological statement (‘Enough’); a poem that nails why spiders are spooky (‘Many’); a ‘woman dressed as “Frank N Furter” / from The Rocky Horror Picture Show’; and, most amazingly of all, an interesting poem inspired by Star Trek (‘Next Generation’).

To isolate such moments itself gives a false impression: Armantrout doesn’t demarcate; these details are not simply subject to a patronising cultural critique imposed from above, but are framed as microcosmic representations of the world in which she and her ‘characters’ have to live. The deadpan humour of these citations and moments co-exists with a profound melancholy, an underlying sense that a better form of existence is possible, perhaps even accessible, but that we can’t see through to it.

Most impressive of all, Armantrout retains, nine books into her career, the ability to wrong-foot her reader entirely. One poem (‘Transaction’) contains the shocking (reported) line ‘Dachau rocked my world’ — which flabbergasts, until one realises one is being asked to take it entirely literally: the revelation of Dachau and other concentration camps really did ‘rock’ the world — ethically, imaginatively. Other moments unsettle more subtly:

“When size really counts,”
the billboard says

showing the product

in one corner,

so we need to search for it.
Come find me.

I stand
behind these words.

What is one to do with this? Grin at its (apparent) naivety? Smirk at its (implicit) knowingness, its blunt equation of ‘author function’ and advertising? Empathise sadly with the impossible desire behind its deferred promise of full authorial presence? All three?

All three. An Armantrout poem exists like a Calder mobile — it looks airy, possibly even frail, but is perfectly balanced at every point. Meaning is kept tantalisingly in suspension, usually at the point where we want it most transparent — Armantrout seems able to second guess her reader’s reactions to an unnerving degree — and the sense of deliberate irresolution often spreads far beyond the poem itself. In her blurb for Up to Speed Susan Howe evokes Marianne Moore’s essay on Anna Pavlova and it seems an apt comparison: there is indeed something balletic in these poems’ poise. Up to Speed does not merely live up to its title — it sets its own pace.

Rob Stanton is based in Pickering, North Yorkshore. He teaches, on and off, at Leeds University. His work has appeared in Great Works and can we have our ball back? and his blogpoem, Copy, exists at

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