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Wesleyan University Press, 136pp Cloth. US $22.95 isbn - 978–0-8195–6879-3
Rae Armantrout’s poetry is powerful in part because it appears vulnerable. Her oeuvre — now comprising ten books since 1978’s Extremities — is made up primarily of short poems, in short lines, fractured and separated out into short sections by either numbers or asterisks. On the page, they can appear, at first at least, a little etiolated and undernourished. Armantrout herself sees this apparent vulnerability as partly generic and partly contextual. In the latest volume of The Grand Piano — the fascinating (if slightly suspect) collective memoir of “San Francisco, 1975–1980” being written by poets associated with the ‘Language’ movement — she gives a useful working definition of “lyric” as “a clearly yet arbitrarily finite entity within which a feedback loop of sonic resonances, echoes, familiarities, and meanings evolves.” If this sounds maybe a touch too “scientific,” it is deliberately so: Armantrout had the biologist Harold Morowitz in mind; she later hones it further to “the little poem, the bubble filled with echoes.” Nothing is so easy to puncture as a bubble.
The lyric poem, then, as practiced by Armantrout and (implicitly) by other lyric poets back through literary history, is fragile in itself — formally, intrinsically — just by being what it is. Beyond this, Armantrout sees the “lyric” as she practices it as threatened by social context as well. This “most lyrical of the Language poets” has long worried that her adherence to a “lyric” model as an “experimental” poet has her falling between stools: too weird for the mainstream; not weird enough for her more avant-garde colleagues. That this may always have been a category mistake, and that her poetry is now as visible and influential as it has ever been — regularly published in “up-market” venues such Poetry, The New Yorker and American Poetry Review and in wannabe era-defining anthologies such as American Hybrid, presented by Stephen Burt in a Boston Review essay as the tutelary spirit of a “New Thing” in poetry — doesn’t seem to have shaken a deep-rooted concern over acceptance and belonging. So, for Armantrout, the lyric is fragile both in itself (from the inside out) and often for being itself (from the outside in).
Paradoxically, this apparently beleaguered state may actually be a position of strength; despite (or because of) her doubts, Armantrout has always thrived as an outsider, a voice of exception. By hitching her wagon to the “lyric,” Armantrout is accepting a model of the poem that in her words “constructs an “I,” who may be imagined as speaking to a singular “you.”” As this (again) slightly clinical model suggests, the “lyric” for Armantrout does not come to rest in the mawkishly or sentimentally autobiographical (tellingly, her example is John Ashbery’s “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” a playful yet touching send-up of just this type of I/you exchange). Armantrout’s opinion of purely confessional writing can be gauged from her essays “Mainstream Marginality” and “Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity,” both included in the excellent Collected Prose published by Singing Horse press in 2008. (The fact that Sharon Olds can still bear to publish poetry seventeen years after the original publication of the latter only proves that she hasn’t read it.) While sharing with her Language-poet peers a deep ambivalence about the privileged lyric “I,” Armantrout, instead of downplaying or avoiding it, takes the perhaps trickier role of tackling it head-on. She has always incorporated (albeit obliquely) autobiographical elements into her work, but always in as objective a manner as possible — the more so for admitting such objectivity is ultimately impossible. Armantrout opens her 1998 memoir True, “Many people must see their lives as somehow exemplary,” but presents herself as exemplary not in the sense of being exceptional or inspirational, but as a good working test case, the “character” she knows best and whose responses she can therefore relate most accurately, as in the pointedly titled “Birthmark: The Pretext”:
I have a real birthmark: a large red one on my outer left thigh. When I was a child, my mother referred to it as a “strawberry mark,” with seeming affection. Was that some kind of trick? Because of what she called it, the mark has never troubled me.
The semi-paranoid fear of “tricks,” even from those closest to her, is an Armantrout trademark, and keeps her sense of self, past and present reality sharp and free of nostalgia.
Concerns about how the “self” fits in, both in poetry and in life, take on an added urgency in Armantrout’s latest collection, Versed (actually made up of two complete manuscripts, Versed and Dark Matter, joined at the hip), much of which was written under the heavy shadow of a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment: dark matter indeed. What happens when the lyric “subject” is herself subject to medical tests and the very real possibility of death? Something like the poem “Together,” perhaps:
Now I am always perched on a metal examination table. Two people, a doctor and a nurse, come at intervals to tell me whether I will live or die. They do this with practiced solemnity. They’re smug or snug in their habits, their relative safety, of course, but that is to be expected. And I wait expectantly, even eagerly, as if I might be of some help. If the news is bad, I imagine, they will direct our attention to an area of concern. For a moment, we will lean together toward that place.
The lack of — expected? understandable? — self-pity makes a nightmarish text like this more, rather than less, troubling.
That phrase, “as if,” is one of Armantrout’s favourites, occurring so frequently in her poetry as to function as a welcome handle and point of orientation for the reader. It tends to carry a positive charge in her work because, even when the freight it conveys is negative, it opens up a virtual space with all the metamorphic possibilities of figuration — identification (i.e. metaphor: this is that) and comparison (i.e. simile: this is like that) — while leaving the situation depicted safely hypothetical. It directs the reader to “imagine this,” allowing Armantrout to explore consequences and results without imposing a definitive interpretation on reality. Her unparalleled use and realization of this “virtual space” is one of the things that really set her writing apart. Versed contains many examples of the “positive” uses Armantrout puts this phrase to:
As if you
could become another person
by setting off
cascade of responses
in his/her body.
As if you could escape
the path you carved
to its prescribed end.
In “Together,” however, “as if” has become an oxymoronic emissary indeed, merging hope (“maybe I will be able to help!”) and impotence (“I will not be able to help”): that the poem remains “hypothetical” — imagining the doctor and the nurse’s arrival and what it will entail — doesn’t negate the threat, “[n]ow” “always” relevant.
The poems in Versed that deal specifically with Armantrout’s illness present a disconcerting range of moods and tones, often within a single poem: one moment she can be darkly funny and down-to-earth:
Chuck and I are pleased
to have found a spot
where my ashes can be scattered.
It looks like a construction site
but it’s adjacent
to a breathtaking, rocky coast.
Chuck sees places
where he might snorkel.
We’re being shown through
by a sort of realtor.
We’re interested but can’t get her
to fix the price.
The next she is bleakly definitive and axiomatic:
is all around us.”
It’s a place,
where we don’t exist.
That these two passages make up successive sections of the same poem (“Around”) show the sudden reversals and fluctuations on offer; it would be tempting to read them as evidence of a mind in (justifiable) panic and disarray, if the juxtapositions weren’t so artfully contrived. Armantrout retains a strong measure of objectivity towards her own vacillations even in extremis.
Cancer — which, as a disease, can seem like a grotesque parody of life — appears several times as a “trick” in these poems, a sinister hidden enemy:
The woman on the mantel,
who doesn’t much resemble me,
is holding a chainsaw
away from her body,
with a shocked smile,
while an undiscovered tumor
squats on her kidney.
In one particularly striking metaphor, Armantrout likens cancer to “healthy” capitalism in action:
In the present
cancer sets up
a free market
in your gut.
In contrast, or as a direct consequence, of such pessimistic imaginings, the will, or instinctive urge to survive becomes a recurring topic in Versed too, sometimes highlighted (“The full force / of the will to live / is fixed / on the next / occasion”), sometimes mocked (“It’s not / that we want to survive, / it’s that we’ve been drugged / and made to act / as if we do”), but always taken seriously. Armantrout’s poetry has always had a diagnostic edge, tracing the overlap between individual worldview, social space and political consequence, but here illness grounds these figurations in harsh reality.
All these aspects come together in a single remarkable poem, “Own,” which appears near the end of the Versed section of the book, i.e. right at its centre. In it, dreams — those most private and mysterious of personal experiences — are contrasted with hospital experiences until the distinctions blur and a desperate desire to understand carries other reactions — hope, fear, remembrance, fantasy — in its wake, communicating both confusion (“illegibly written over, snippets of reference, / madly irrelevant”) and urgency. It is profoundly unsettling, an especially great poem in a volume, and career, not short of them.
Poems like “Own” clarify what now seems an obvious truth about Armantrout’s work: that she has made herself a (if not the) great contemporary poet of death — or, more accurately, of mourning. She is uncannily able to evoke those painful flashes where loss is experienced all over again, grief that is intolerable but somehow also has to be borne, the way the dead can seem either very present still or shockingly absent:
I don’t love
though I once —
what does “once” mean? —
did love her.
She achieves such moments because she retains all her humour, lightness of touch and scientific accuracy throughout; precisely where she could become morbid or portentous she is wrongfootingly blunt (“God and Mother / went the same way”) or flippant (“As if this were a matter / of life and death // and now it is”). She actually thinks about death, something very few of us can maintain for long. In other recent volumes, such ideas have centered on the figure of Armantrout’s mother, but in Versed events unsurprisingly confront Armantrout with both her own mortality and the awareness that it cannot be truly “seen”:
It’s as if
can never be
Note the formal control: the way the short, hesitant lines create temporal “pools” of meaning (“the real,” “can never be”) that enjambment then destroys; the appearance of “as if” again, uncharacteristic fidgety here because a lot — the whole question of whether or not one’s own death can really be imagined — is resting on it.
In addition to the poems that deal explicitly with her cancer, Versedsees Armantrout turn to more familiar topics — notably, the construction and representation of identity — with a fresh intensity. She has long been incisive on the inability of the “subject” to fully or finally understand or speak for herself, but recent events have given her a new and forceful impatience with such contradictions:
one of the clichés
the memory, not
but of continuity
Who are you anyway?
This is how the poem — tellingly titled “Wannabe” — ends. Another new poem, “Like,” offers a sort of self-portrait in reverse, a gradual unwinding of the uniqueness of the self:
“What it’s like
to be me.”
Where watch out
and report back
a stubborn eddy.
to take exception?
How much of me
could be lost
while like remained?
Could like stand alone?
Such interrogative outbursts heighten, rather than negate, Armantrout’s philosophical investigations, indicating the need driving the thought.
An inability to know oneself, to know just whom is asking the questions, is inexorably mirrored by an inability to know others, doubts which lead to some of the most touching moments in the collection:
The short moan — or hum? —
as you drift toward sleep
is an island
I can’t visit
Intimacy becomes a fraught ground where real contact must nevertheless be made, relying on a sometimes clunky, sometimes sublime moment-by-moment dance of flirtation and recognition:
The way my interest
in their imaginary
is secretly addressed
Sex is both literal consumption here and allegory of achieved (or fleetingly achieved) connection. Is desire, and the desire to desire, always healthy though?
What the pudendum
to pinch off,
What comes to
be called pleasure
The danger is always failed communication, and a number of the poems in Versed deal explicitly with feeling what one poem calls “Lonesome” — “The same loneliness / that separates me // from what I call / “the world.” This leads, again in a predictably bipolar way, to one of the funniest, most charming passages in the book (“When I ask what you’re thinking, you say “about explaining to children the best way to build a Maypole.”” — how could the questioner have anticipated that answer?), as well as one of the saddest:
They drive me
out to sea.
Secretly, I am still
_____, the mysterious.
I speak in splashes.
I have the lonely dream
That Armantrout’s speaker is having dreams of loneliness is bad enough; that they are recurring often enough to have become the “lonely dream” compounds the pathos.
The feeling of drained or draining power this passages conveys (“I speak in splashes”) recurs frequently throughout Versed and shows how intertwined all the volume’s themes — mortality, identity, desire, solipsism, fear of solipsism, even political and social visibility (something this review has neglected: see “Previews: America” for a piercingly sharp — and funny — reading of the movie Iron Man as allegory of America’s self-image as a world power, “more powerful and more innocent than ever before”) — have become. It is disconcerting to read a poet writing at what must surely be top form discussing failing powers:
from scattered locations
at one time,
making a picture appear,
In light of her recent health (thankfully much improved since these poems were written), it is perhaps not surprising to find Armantrout turning to a theme that was already old when Shakespeare wrote “in black ink my love may still shine bright”: the poem as lasting monument to and enshrinement of both the poet’s subject and ability. For Armantrout, this centres not on the loved one specifically but on a whole sense of reality as perceived and experienced, a focus on the immediately physical and societal she has inherited from Williams Carlos Williams and his heirs George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker and Robert Creeley — a focus Armantrout associates with the principle deictic word, “this”:
What have you got to lose?
gray tile roof,
gray sky scored
by power lines.
This framed measure
Shadows of fingers
move across the white page.
could write this.
That word —
The ending is disingenuous, misdirection: “this” evokes everything that would be lost should this point of view disappear: a whole world and a record of that world (“Any statement I issue, / if particular enough, // will prove / I was here”). In these poems, Armantrout gives the uncanny impression of musing on her own epitaph:
If you watch me
from increasing distance
I am writing this
The title of this last poem — “Anchor” — takes us back to the notion of “lyric” as potentially vulnerable victim and offers a taut alternative: the lyric, if accurate and well-built and precisely because it is specific and subjective, can provide a real purchase on an otherwise slippery existence, offering a stay not only for the writer, but also for the reader. In an incredible 1999 interview with Lyn Hejinian (also included in Collected Prose — and as illuminating, incidentally, of Hejinian’s work as it is of Armantrout’s), Armantrout says she writes “to keep myself awake and alive” rather than as a result of any grand socio-political ambition. She is, again, rather underselling her work: her poems work for others too and therefore are political interventions, keeping the reader not only awake (sometimes long into the night when he or she would rather be asleep), but also alert and mentally and emotionally “alive” and prepared. This is a tremendous gift, but not always an easy one. Armantrout takes nothing for granted, and invites the same rigour from her readers. In doing so, she forces us again and again back to those basic questions — who am I? what can I know? how much and to what end has the society I exist in shaped me? how can I connect meaningfully with those around me? what happens when I die? — that we usually prefer to avoid. That she does so without betraying the felt immediacy of the world or deviating into rarefied abstraction elevates her work beyond that of most of her contemporaries. That she can do all of this so honestly, inventively and consistently makes Versed — and the volumes it succeeds — some of the greatest art of our time.
Rob Stanton lives, teaches and writes in Savannah, GA, with wife and cats. His poems and prose have been published in numerous places on- and offline, including Jacket 25, 31, 33 and 37. He is working on, among other things, a book about Rae Armantrout. He is the author of two self-published chapbooks, Poles and Vast Shadow That, available at http://stores.lulu.com/store.php?fAcctID=3993260