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In her most recent volume of poems, Rae Armantrout takes on everyday American existence as her subject, addressing consumerism, popular culture, and the “next life” that lies ahead of the current one. Imagined within the context of new and disconcerting global realities, Armantrout’s spare, finely crafted lyrics engage with the dual meanings and contradictions inherent a range of subjects, from politics to religion and academia, dazzling the reader with syntactic feats and evocative images throughout. Populated by action figures, presidents, and visitations, the poems of Next Life not only analyze but dissect their subject matter, as well as the underlying cultural assumptions that accompany them, with wry wit and linguistic economy.
Particularly impressive in her use of juxtapositions to comment on contemporary popular culture, many of Armantrout’s works take the form of poem sequences, in which the individual pieces illuminate and complicate one another. ‘The Subject’ exemplifies this trend in Next Life, transitioning from a reworked fairy tale to internet pop-up ads, ending with a comparison between time and a mirror. Weaving together these separate threads in an effort to explore the cultural fascination with surfaces, Armantrout’s inventive pairings suggest that with technology comes a greater impermanence and deceptiveness of exteriors. For example, she writes in ‘The Subject’:
I was just going to click
on “Phoebe is changed
into a mermaid
tomorrow!” when suddenly
it all changed
into the image
of a citizen watch. (18)
Similar to an earlier piece in the sequence, in which an amphibian speaker turns human only to realize that the beetle he has devoured “is our elder brother/and that we/are a young prince/,” this passage elaborates on the first metamorphosis to take place, updating and contemporizing the earlier fairytale-like transition (18). While drawing a parallel between such mythological transformations and our newly digitalized society, the second poem of ‘The Subject’ remains complicated by the first’s imagery of power. By placing this passage side by side with the sudden realization at the start of the work that “we/are a young prince,” Armantrout suggests that the everyday technology depicted in the second poem remains a privilege and new, mostly unknown territory, its success yet to be determined. The last piece, too, complicates what came before it, invoking a collective “we” and its attempts to “change the subject” (18). Wonderfully ironic and refreshingly disconcerting, Armantrout’s poem, like many others in Next Life, is as thought-provoking as it is spare, ultimately raising more questions than it provides answers.
Similarly, Armantrout’s poems about religion convey the contradictions inherent in the contemporary vision of morality through juxtaposition, often pairing the sacred with the political and even the commercial. Suggesting through inventive pairings (such as a conversation amongst action figures about the soul, visitations alongside “Lady Liberty” figurines, etc.) that consumer culture, politics, and worship remain inseparable, the author’s incisive analysis of American religious culture is conveyed both subtly and ironically. This trend in Next Life is exemplified by Armantrout’s poem Close, in which she writes:
Slow, blue, stiff
of crowd behavior,
The crowd is made of
and there is still
no heaven. (12)
In the beginning of the poem, which invokes the blue stiffness of the dead and attributes it to the “crowd behavior” and “mass hysteria,” Armantrout immediately calls to mind both the current political situation and consumer culture. Suggesting through inventive pairings that the aggressive promotion of both products and ideas, namely war, can become both deadly and uncontrollable, the end of Close, like many other poems in the book, generates infinite possible meanings through juxtaposition rather than providing a definitive answer. Finishing with the elusive image of the crowd, which “is made of/little gods/and there is still/no heaven,” Armantrout raises fascinating questions about both the role of religion in such mass hysterias and that of powerful individuals, who ultimately become absorbed in and led by “crowd behavior.” Lyrical and economical, the poems of Next Life evoke both the contemporary and the universal while maintaining their own distinctive stylistic approach.
Armantrout’s depictions of academia in her new book are also striking. Often writing poems in the guise of short fiction and scientific theories, these poems offer shrewd observations on new trends in literature and science through their innovative use of form. Discussing the state of contemporary fiction in a prose poem called ‘Short Story’, as well as parodying the tendency in postmodern works to parody in a series of poems entitled ‘Make it New’, Rae Armantrout’s poems comment on literature and academia while maintaining a balanced perspective and their own sense of stylistic unity. These themes are particularly apparent in ‘Theory of Everything’, in which Rae Armantrout’s use of the poem sequence becomes a vehicle for a discourse on the new physics. She writes, for example:
A wide swath
and feathery green,
was no longer playing. (13)
Characteristically spare and finely crafted, Armantrout’s ‘Theory of Everything’ depicts the esoteric nature of contemporary physics through an unexpected metaphor, this passage being only one element of the poem sequence. Paired with images of empty space in other segments of the piece, the author suggests through such motifs that this “wide swath/of baby talk” remains not only devoid of a significant message but lacking an audience. An astute commentary on overly ambitious academic endeavors and the importance of maintaining a connection to the society at large, ‘Theory of Everything’ delivers a unique musicality while making fascinating points about current approaches to academic research and writing.
Rae Armantrout’s Next Life is an erudite, intellectually engaging read. Filled with elusive images, innovative juxtapositions, and substantive questions, this book is ideal for readers of contemporary poetry and cultural commentary alike. All points considered, Armantrout’s new collection is a must-read.
Kristina Marie Darling is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of four chapbooks, which include Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006) and The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2006). A Pushcart Prize nominee in 2006, her poems, reviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Janus Head, Rattle, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Rain Taxi, Redactions: Poetry and Poetics, and other journals.