Tuesday, January 06, 2004

The first book I received this year – Rae Armantrout’s Up to Speed – already has a 2004 copyright date. It also has a book jacket on which Susan Howe compares Armantrout to Marianne Moore’s depiction of Anna Pavlova, & a web site on which Marjorie Perloff invokes Marcel Duchamp & an otherwise unidentified Boston Review piece cites both William Carlos Williams & Emily Dickinson as Armantrout’s “teachers.”* That’s a lot of forest to get through in order to reach the tree, I think, but happily Armantrout is well worth the effort.


To readers of this blog, or elsewhere in my critical writing, it should come as no surprise that I think of Armantrout as one of the half-dozen finest poets of the past half century, perhaps the last two centuries. I also wonder if that comes as any news. It has occurred to me that a positive word here about her book might be chalked up to the unsurprising response of a full-time enthusiast. I had not reacted well, say, to Richard Tillinghast’s piece in The New Criterion on Robert Lowell even though Tillinghast does in fact try to make some salient points with regards to Lowell & his poetry. I just think that asking a protégé what he or she thinks of the master is going to get you a predictable response. And there is a degree to which a lot of us who are temporally Armantrout’s peers are secretly really her protégés as well. After reading her work now for 35 years, I still find myself learning new things about writing every time I take up one of her books.


Up to Speed is Armantrout’s very best work. While at 69 pages the book may be no larger than most of her non-selected volumes, it feels larger, richer, with a fuller emotional range. Often in these poems, I hear not what I would call anger exactly, but a sharper tone than we have had before:


The point is to see through
the dying,

who pinch non-existent
objects from the air



to this season’s
laying on of
withered leaves?


This is an exceptionally complicated sentence, even for a master of them like Armantrout. Nothing twists the knife of angst half so clearly as the question mark at its end – where precisely is the question? & why is seeing “this season’s / laying on of / withered leaves” the point? The punctuation is at least as much a matter of pitch as it is of syntax – Armantrout intends those i & e sounds to be voiced higher than the o tones of the previous line. Given how variously any two of us actually voice the language (my own twin boys speak very differently from each other), it takes an enormous amount of confidence to write a poem – or in this case, one section of a poem – in which the point, to use Armantrout’s term, occurs through a shift in pitch.


This poem, which is entitled “Seconds,” is worth exploring in greater length, both as an instance of this sharper edge & because it is an excellent example of how Armantrout uses the sectionality of her poetry to create objects that are every bit as torqued as the syntax of that first sentence. The title can be read in multiple ways &, always a good strategy when reading Armantrout, all of them bring something to the text. In the second section, lines are double-spaced, as tho stressing the ambivalence of their connectedness:


A moment is everything

one person

(see below)

takes in simultaneously

though some

or much of what

a creature feels

may not reach

conscious awareness

and only a small part

(or none) of this

will be carried forward

to the next instant.


These linebreaks are chasms – the first line is a possible sentence in itself & its meaning transforms the instant that it becomes qualified as what a person takes in, tho the echo of our initial reading never fully fades. Again we have a reference, this time parenthetical – (see below) – that seems potentially as wayward as that question mark in the first section. And again we have words selected so carefully – creature, for example – one can almost feel the pain of precision literally exacted by such writing. The temporality of this section, driven by space & so many enjambed lines, slows down our reading &, with it, our perception of time.


The final section – these are numbered 1, 2, 3 – consists of three lines. Are they the below of which we have been warned? A demonstration of the first section’s point? Far from answering any of the questions raised during the poem, this three line piece presence is at least as mysterious as anything that has come before:


Any one
not seconded

burns up in rage.


This kind of tension without release is a rare effect in poetry, in any art form really.** The last poet who was this good at it was probably Jack Spicer, but only in Language & Book of Magazine Verse. Too often, though, Spicer’s poems can be taken for the frustrations of love. Armantrout’s accessing a much more existential dimension here, so that it feels constantly in these poems that there is much more at stake than just the recognition that love can’t relieve us of our essential loneliness. Once one sees this in these poems, the seeming lightness of this book’s title is turned inside out, so that what we sense in the concept of Up to Speed is a kind of vertigo we’ve all felt, but never quite known how to put into words. Armantrout here shows us how.





* For the record, Armantrout studied with Kathleen Fraser & Denise Levertov while she was in college.


** Think of the impact it had on rock & roll, when Bob Dylan learned how to do this on Highway 61 Revisited & Blonde on Blonde. And it’s the effect that none of the Dylan imitators could ever learn how to achieve.