by Vidyan Ravinthiran
from Poetry, February 2017
“It is easier to think,” wrote Keats to John Taylor, “what Poetry should be than to write it — and this leads me on to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” Bouncing ludically onward, Keats is, in his correspondence, at once the Romantic genius parading his licensed idiosyncrasies and the “camelion Poet” with no identity at all. This famous letter presents us with the drama of consciousness. Reading it, one agrees with Rae Armantrout in her interview with Prac Crit: “objections could be raised to a human consciousness being a unified thing. The present is something that the mind does. They say the subjective present is about three seconds long.” In comparison, Keats’s hotly provisional axiom has turned to marble, his moment of excited phrase-making will last forever. And it hasn’t palled, at least with me, for though we’ve learned cautiousness as to what appears to come “naturally” (especially while reading Armantrout; she makes you contemplate even the back of your hand with bedazzled skepticism), Keats never says that leaves arrive all at once, or without a fight.
Nothing is natural in the work of Rae Armantrout. Our words, gestures, and relationships are conventional, scripted, deformed — or outright produced — by, as she has it, “the interventions of capitalism into consciousness.” On the subject of “nature,” I notice plenty of leaves, and leaf-shadows, and leaf-reflections (in both senses of the word) in her poems — but her plants are urban, compromised, possibly parodying of Keats:
Evenly hovering attention:
Long tangles of gray-
green eucalyptus leaves
throwing sharp shadows.
If I could just signal
— From Twizzle
Armantrout’s short lines, and short stanzas, inhabit that “subjective present” she mentions. Her style observes, engages with, and would redeem our attention deficits. Championing the experimental verse of Lyn Hejinian and Lorine Niedecker, she insists that
clarity need not be equivalent to readability. How readable is the world? There is another kind of clarity that doesn’t have to do with control but with attention, one in which the sensorium of the world can enter as it presents itself.
And so she asks that we look closer and try harder, but also suggests that willpower may itself be an illusion.
What’s salvageable? Armantrout seizes the overweening falseness of our culture as a creative opportunity. We’re so denatured that the poetry appears, paradoxically, to come, as Keats says, naturally. So deeply encoded are her environs by modes of power, so thoroughly embosked by media-jargon just yearning to be critically ravished — so multiplex, all in all, with capitalism’s oozy-woozy contiguities — that the poet discerns everywhere a bad and mighty significance:
The other day I drove past a typical strip mall and noticed the names Comics City, Video House, and Taco King side by side. Since that configuration seemed indicative of “what is wrong” with American society (the commodities are real, the polis is virtual), I considered writing it down for later use in a poem. I decided against it though — on the grounds that it was “too ironic.” The problem with merely noting shop names is that it leaves the viewer (me) unimplicated and in a generally superior “I know better, but they’re ignorant” position. Used that way, irony seems snotty.
Though it can become smug, this is a position one has sometimes to take. When “Canary” begins “Some folks got tortured / by folks,” we may rush, with the poet, to condemn US military policy, noticing the homespun idiom that Barack Obama weaves emolliently into his rhetoric; “Thing” compares a cat licking herself to (Armantrout’s scare-quotes) “balanced reporting”; and what about the parody of business-speak, evilly near military-speak, in “Prayers”: “All we ask / is that our thinking // sustain momentum, / identify targets”? These poems identify their own targets, they skewer, and I’m grateful for every moment of it. This is guerrilla condescension, a way of making our world liveable, and pressing back against the immense money-power that comes at us every which way and vulgarizes whatever it touches. (I’m especially tickled by “Haunts”: “On how many bookstore shelves, / lovely, fanged teenagers, / red-eyed, smeared with blood.”) And though Armantrout writes of sex, pornography, and gender with serious intent, there’s space for innuendo, a phallus-withering giggle: “When certainty is high, / we grunt or yelp — // the agreed-upon signal. // One of us does.”
Yet it’s true that Armantrout usually places both reader and writer within a compromised situation, rather than safely outside. “In Front” refuses to leave its viewer, or speaker, unimplicated:
Tree in new leaf
in front of
a brick building
slung under panes
in which a tree
before an audience
do the splits
as I once did
For other poets, a “tree in new leaf” remains, innocently, a trope for new life. But Armantrout describes her way alternatively into that “brick building” and its reflections, replacing the green thing itself with its mediated and multiple echo — it’s “dissected” like a corpse before an audience, though is anyone watching? The panes of glass resemble television screens, the cluster-eye of a fly. “Dissected” turns vision into analysis, perception into commentary — so it’s perfect for Armantrout, who takes from William Carlos Williams his mechanical caressiveness, a stagey and often wondrous ponderousness of focus, and also bends observation towards social critique. A characteristic section break has the poem continue, slightly — with a conclusion, or a second thought? It’s that turn to the personal that is typical of our times (and, maybe, the self-interest of everyone, everywhere); whenever you think Armantrout’s setting up a steady lyrical voice in her poems, she’s probably just poking fun at this tendency. She frames the exclamations of a personality jockeying for position — “Look at me!”; “Don’t look!”; “Each poem says, / ‘I’m desperate’ // then, ‘Everything / must go!’”; “I want to go back!” — I would identify this voice with the neediness of the child within, if that wasn’t precisely the kind of warmed-over media cliché her verse lines up and delights to knock down like dominoes. She remarks upon our inability to really see anything except in relation to ourselves — we rethink what it would mean for a poem, or a personality, to really come as naturally as the leaves to a tree.
In her lovely, pellucid essay on Lorine Niedecker, Armantrout observes how in that poet’s North Central
humans are implicitly compared with trees. A tree is said to “put forth” leaves as a person is said to put forth effort. But a tree is consistent, untiring.... The little joke is that such behavior, if maintained, would cause humans to die of exposure.
She also sees Bob Grenier parodying Romantic verse when he writes an “ecstatic address to bountiful nature in the form of a tree.” But it is in her interview with Tom Beckett that we really see what Keats might bring to Armantrout’s own thoroughly unantiquated poetics. “What are your hopes,” Beckett asks, in 1999 — before 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the financial crisis, Facebook, Twitter, the iPhone, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, a spate of both ironic and pretentious superhero movies — “for the future of poetry?”
Trying to answer this question makes me feel a bit like a politician. “Building a bridge to ... ” etc. My poetry isn’t built on hope. I don’t know what it is built on, but it isn’t hope. I guess I could say this: Right now the audience for serious poetry (of any kind) is small. It seems as if what most people expect from poetry is a kind of ego-tonic. They want to identify with the speaker of the poem as one might identify with an action figure. (That may show just how powerless people are feeling.) I don’t think this was always what people wanted from poetry. “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” for instance, doesn’t make you feel particularly empowered. You don’t say to yourself, “I’m just like that. I appreciate antiquities!” So here’s my wish — I wish people would stop looking to poetry for confirmation of what they already feel (or wish they felt) and that they would instead rediscover “negative capability.” Or, to put it another way, I wish that, in art and politics, people would seek a power other than that of voyeuristic identification.
In “Two, Three,” Armantrout asks a related question:
Is it the beginning or end
of real love
when we pity a person
because, in him,
we see ourselves?
Poetry doesn’t confirm what we already feel about ourselves and other people; it challenges those preconceptions. So we might see Armantrout as inspiringly out of step with the orthodoxies urged upon women poets, those of color, and other minorities, who are pressured to find an empoweringly consistent “voice” and smoothly depict, rather than analyze or be inventive in relation to, their everyday lives. The prescribed task is to offer, tribally-speaking, an “action figure” to identify with — photographs of ourselves in mighty poses, rather than poems — instead of contesting, as literature must, our prevalent, culturally-sculpted guesstimates as to what a person actually is and could be. Armantrout’s having none of it:
Various voices speak in my poems. I code-shift. I am many things: a white person, a working-class person with roots in the South, a woman, an academic of sorts, a ’60s person who still likes rock and roll, someone who was raised on the Bible, a skeptic, etc. My voices manifest their own social unrest.
Armantrout is insistent on her “various voices,” which prevent her writing simply and straightforwardly “as a woman.” But where women have been simplified into sexual objects and commercial provocations, she wishes to recover the possibility of “social unrest.” “Easily” scrutinizes a strip club ad, with sympathy for the women “posed” in it to titillate the male gaze — and also, as a question can be “posed”:
in the Gentlemen’s Club ad
with pink mouths slack,
Show me stunned resentment —
the world absorbs
it won’t easily
Every calculated word choice, every line break, adds a nuance, a point where meaning condenses. (Armantrout’s memoir, True, mentions the teaching of Denise Levertov: “Most of the suggestions I remember her making about my poems involved line breaks. She caused me to think more seriously about the possibilities involved in breaking lines.”) There is anger in the poem, which makes it compelling — Armantrout’s urge is to counter through intelligent scrutiny what has been done to these women and what they’ve been made to stand for; what a grisly technological word “model” is, when you really look at it! The “Gentlemen’s Club” isn’t exactly the Athenaeum, but a strip club — still, the euphemistic pretentiousness of its moniker captures a continuity relating to these male spaces, while even “club” has its tinge of caveman violence. The “pink mouths” and “eyes narrowed / to slits” are vaginal, while the eye-narrowing also gives us the hijacking of sexual signals (which work on the viewer unconsciously) by the strategies of advertising — which is thus able to bypass those rational decision-making processes so insisted upon by academic economists. “Forget,” hanging there in white space, with no period, sounds like an instruction: “forget.” We see ads like these every day, and then we “forget” about them, taking their cynicism as a given, as immutable as the physical laws which make apples fall from trees and our bodies age. But don’t these messages actually stick in the mind and shape our attitudes? Really, we’re all insulted by them — I don’t mean “offended,” in the conventional sense; I mean, there is inside the ad an idea of us as small, stupid, and malleable.
All of Armantrout could be read this minutely. This poem highlights a continuing interest in sexuality and gender; another new one, “Assembly,” seems to me to curiously rescramble, in a characteristic mixing of science-language with relationship-language, the fish-woman imagery of Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror.” This fusion, or colliding, of registers has become more and more important to Armantrout. “I try to somehow ground abstract physics in human psychology,” she says; “I do so feeling that the two are somehow incompatible and that they will clash in tragicomic ways.” In the first section of “End Times” (a religious phrase we’re prompted, as always, to query) the expansion of the universe becomes a game of hide-and-seek (freighted, of course, with longing and shame):
Galaxies run from us. “Don’t look!”
Was this the meaning
of the warning in the Garden?
When a dreamer sees she’s dreaming,
it causes figments to disperse.
Writing to Benjamin Bailey, Keats compares the “Imagination” to “Adam’s dream — he awoke and found it truth. I am the more zealous in this affair, because I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning — and yet it must be.” Armantrout is as skeptical of what we take for “reason” — the trains of thought which follow their supply lines to the centers of commerce — but less assertive as to the power of the imagination. Her dreamer in the garden of Eden (a woman, is it Eve?) falters in the middle of a lucid dream — it all comes apart. (A “figment” is a fictional “fragment,” but I also wonder if Adam and Eve’s shamed wearing of fig leaves over their genitals applies here.)
The poem’s second section blends with science the vocabularies of art appreciation and computer programming:
Black bars and dots
of low cloud,
almost a signature,
reflected on a sunset marsh.
Luxuriant and spurious code
as if we were meant to think,
so we do
and a ripple
travels in one spot.
When something reaches
the speed of light
it will appear to freeze,
I read this and I do think “Beautiful!” for Armantrout does, sometimes, choose to write that sort of poem. The description works as description and also as “code” — those “black bars and dots” are like Morse code — and the notional “signature” alludes to natural theology, the view of nature as an artwork created by God with secret meanings and a confirmation of his existence within. The line break on “think” is (I think) especially “meaningful.” Were human beings — it’s admirable how Armantrout brings together such an all-pervading corrosiveness as to social arrangements and the postulation, nevertheless, of a collective experience — truly “meant to think”? We’ve evolved to consider ourselves more reasoning and reasonable than we are; but all our philosophizing comes down to, from a biological-anthropological perspective, a survival strategy. The recognition of the beautiful is, Kantianly speaking, what lifts us above all that — beauty has no utility — but perhaps even here we’re only pattern-finding and sense-making and trying to feel more secure about our environment.
The paradox of the ripple traveling in one spot may describe not water but an emotion, and the subsequent talk of the speed of light is conscious of the point at which scientific description becomes “meaningful,” or stops being so, as metaphor. New age pablum seizes irresponsibly on the figural residue of science — the media, and media scientists, often have a vexed relationship with this (rather salable) aspect — think of Richard Dawkins, for instance, and the “selfish gene.” Just as the speed of light can never be reached, so language (within a poem, or outside of it) may approach vacuity but never truly get there, for words are constantly effusing significance, however uncorralled. “The Creation,” a poem from her earlier selected, Veil, states pretend-Biblically, mock-scientifically that “In the beginning / there was measurement”:
enough, in a small
enough space, and
will take first
shape, then substance.
This is physics-flavored but also concerns ambition, identity, and the meaning, or meaninglessness, of life. (See, also, “Once”: “The opposite / of nothingness // is direction”). How provincial must we become, or remain, to be coherent to others and ourselves?
A poet’s Selected Poems is a chance to shape into integrity their scattered outpourings. So for Armantrout to call her second Partly is roguish. Her title foregrounds doubt and announces (to borrow from her conversation with Hejinian) a political poetics of uneasy “parts”:
Devices and strategies arose, I suspect, because they correspond with conflicts in the modern and postmodern world. They reflect an uneasy relation between part and whole. How does the individual relate to his or her society? Representational democracy doesn’t seem to represent us. How do individual neurons add up to a single consciousness (to revert to the problem of knowledge)? Many poets continue to pose the unsolved part/whole problem on the page.
“Pass”: “Single cells // become like-minded, // forming a consensus // or quorum.” This metaphor grows courageously experiential in Versed, published three years after the cancer diagnosis — a rare form, adrenal cortical cancer — Armantrout received in 2006. She says her poem “Own” was begun in the ICU: “Woman in a room near mine moans, ‘I’m dying. I want / to be fine! It’s my body! / Don’t let me! Don’t touch me!’” When we read in this work that “the part is sick / of representing the whole,” we may think about a categorized person (a woman, a cancer survivor) refusing to write an exemplary poem about her experiences; also, of the parts of one’s body, its cells, turning on each other in revolt. The personal becomes political in the most terrible way.
“Later” philosophizes about disease, and personhood, with a lived inventiveness reminiscent of Donne in his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, evoking his own body as given over to civil war. It’s a poem about how parts add up, or don’t add up, to wholes. Here are the first and second parts:
To be beautiful
and powerful enough
to want to break me
into syndicated ripples.
Later I’ll try
to rise from these dead.
How much would this body
have had to be otherwise in order
not to be mine,
for this world
not to exist?
When would that difference
have had to begin?
A cancer sufferer might shift from conceiving of her own body as convulsed by internecine war, to feeling that a separate demon wished to destroy her; and then ask — why me? “Later,” you might say, about something you don’t want to sort out now; or the word might continue a story following a major incident. But can a person with cancer — Armantrout’s, happily, went into remission — rely on “later”? She will not rise from the dead, but “these dead”; she has been, to go back to “In Front,” split, divided, into many possible selves. Section 2 is gauchely gluey on the subject of identity, precise to the point of pedantry — no poet could write “have had” without wincing, but Armantrout does it twice. The experience of alienation from one’s own body, the agony of its tissues being no longer “in order,” turning other: academically inert diction insists, perversely, provocatively (with a constructed hauteur) that this is a philosophical question.
Armantrout has written about wishing to describe her experience from outside, but also, feelingly, from within:
When we think about other people’s subjective experience, we ask ourselves what it’s like to be them. What is it like then to be told that you have adrenal cortical cancer, a disease so rare you have never heard of it and from which you will probably die? What is it like to discover this when you have been feeling no pain, feeling, especially well even? That is the situation I faced in June of 2006. In the months following my diagnosis, I tried to describe the experience, to say what it was like, in poetry which was later published in a book called Versed (sometimes confused with the anesthetic Versed).
To say what the cancer “was like”: does this mean, getting at the essence of it, or, contrarily (and with no lapse of authority/sincerity/authenticity) using it as the basis for simile, metaphor, comparisons of the person with the state, or with another person? The poem isn’t exactly an allegory, it creatively rejigs what actually occurred in trying to get down on the page what it was “like.” Cancer provides an imaginative route into the question of selfhood, and how we are constituted in relation to our sometimes abrasive interactions with other people:
They drive me
out to sea.
Secretly, I am still
_____, the mysterious.
I speak in splashes.
I have the lonely dream
— From Later
In the run-up to diagnosis, Armantrout “began to have rather ominous dreams,” one of which involved “being towed out to sea in a little boat and left there. Do I believe in precognition? Not really. But I think it’s possible that your body may sometimes know more than your conscious mind does.” The six-syllable couplet which begins this section has the pronoun “me,” which throngs the poem — me, me, me, it cries — runs harshly up against “they.” The speaker is driven out to sea — ostracized, exiled (because infected)? Or does the poem describe only a kindly excursion, a patient taken for a recuperative drive by her caretakers? We know also that a person is composed of psychophysiological “drives,” so “they” could refer to her cells, a disease acting from within.
Yet the social, or antisocial, language of the poem is surely crucial. “They drive me / out”; this hurting phrase has a psychoanalytic primacy and situates the speaker among other people. “Mysterious” insists on a special identity that can’t be touched or tarnished because it’s secret and protected from however others might act. Does “I speak in splashes” describe her capacity for a heightened elemental language — like that of poetry — or is the alliteration self-defeating, does it suggest that she only emits noise, can’t say very much at all, can’t communicate? The “lonely dream” posits a realm of subjective privacy into which the speaker may retreat, or in which she could be trapped — also a possession, or an aspiration (“I have the lonely dream”) which adds glamour to her isolation. “Later” concerns suffering, the self, other people, and a threat which appears, like inspiration, to arrive both from within and outside. It’s about victimhood and uniqueness — overlapping concepts feverishly central to our culture, but treated here in such a firmly diagnostic way. We’re left wondering if the speaker of the poem will, like Adam, wake from her dream and find it truth.
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