Thursday, February 08, 2007

 

David Melnick and I were riding a BART train that seemed far more tattered & worn than I had remembered them, the screech of the under-the-bay-tunnel making it difficult to hear one another, while David thumbed through his newly acquired copy of Rae Armantrout’s Next Life. “She’s still true to the same values,” David said. “She loves those words with short vowels. All those as and ifs.

I knew what David meant. We had just come from hearing Rae read with Leslie Scalapino, a superb performance on both their parts. Leslie had read from a couple of books, one of them being (I think) Day Ocean State of Star’s Night, forthcoming from Green Integer Press, another being ‘Can’t’is ‘Night’ and other poems, not a book but a CD from stemrecordings.com. I had heard in Leslie’s reading something I’d not considered before with regard to her writing, its affinity for the work of Larry Eigner. In Eigner’s work you are never very far – seldom more than a word or a few syllables – from the immediate. One reads – or at least I read (and my hearing Scalapino again reminded me why I think this) – her work with a similar sense of the phenomenological present. Sentences often change direction or angle off in ways not anticipated, certainly by the syntax, but because decisions & priorities must be made in the now which is constantly shifting, always in question. There is an urgency to the work that I find I trust completely and am willing to let her go further than almost any other writer before I insist on some sense of return (not the same thing as “making sense,” for the record).

And I’d heard the short vowels in Armantrout’s poems to which Melnick had been alluding. It’s an aspect of her writing I associate, to be honest, with George Oppen, who similarly preferred those vowels and knew it. (I know that I’ve told the story more than once of standing next to Robert Duncan at a reading at Glide Church when Mark Linenthal brought Oppen up to introduce him to Duncan. This shocked me at the time because, being but a callow lad, I thought surely all the famous poets knew one another. Oppen’s first remark to Duncan was “I want to talk to you about all those open vowels in your work,” the implication being that he did not find them as mellifluous as Duncan. I only wish I could remember what Robert replied!)

I turned to my copy of Next Life and read “Some,” a poem that, in fact, Armantrout had not read at Moe’s, just listening for the vowels:

Someone insists on forming sentences
on my pillow
when all I want is sleep:

marching orders,
wisecracks about others elsewhere.

I’d like to kill her
but I’m told it’s she

who must go on
at all cost.

*

The old cat casts her eye
about the carpet near her,
jerkily,
preparing to lick herself.

*

A sense of mission      lost
in ink’s
jagged outcrops.

I try to tell myself
what I must have known
before

in a form
I wouldn’t recognize at first.

*

Blinksmanship.

Bright ranks of
                    of

slip rapidly
over bars of it.


Blank-pedaling.

Long live illumined
oblongs

with this shuttling
                        cross-hatch

I don’t know if a linguistic atlas would identify the rate of long-to-short vowels generally and, if so, just how far a poem like the above might deviate from the norm, whether it be nationally, from Armantrout’s lifelong San Diego home, or even the “edge of the south” states (Missouri to Oklahoma) from which her parents emigrated.

It’s not that Armantrout doesn’t use long vowels here, so much as it is that she uses them to set up effects that land more directly on the short ones. Thus, for example, the two long syllables in old and eye in the second section (reiterated by the shorter version of a long vowel at the end of jerkily) aurally set up the last line: preparing to lick herself. Indeed, the key word of the last line, lick, can be found inverted as the second syllable of jerkily, whose k sound has already been set up by cat, cast and carpet. The way Armantrout sets up these minute effects is a pleasure to watch.

Similarly the long vowels of Bright ranks set up not just the double of / of, but are part of the gradual build-up for the brilliant final sentence, whose lone long vowel is the ē in ing. That’s a wonderful sentence to read aloud: Long live illumined / oblongs etc.

Obviously, Armantrout is no sound poet – she consistently uses it to reinforce arguments, to suggest ironies, to set a sense of tonal color. But it’s always an active dimension of the work, part of the great pleasure in reading (and in hearing her read) her poetry.

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