Tuesday, February 06, 2007

One poem in Next Life that strikes me as revealing a good deal about how Rae Armantrout weaves her verbal magic is called “Close”:


As if a single scream
gave birth

to whole families
of traits

such as “flavor,” “color,”

and this tendency to cling.


Dry, white frazzle
in a blue vase –

beautiful –

a frozen swarm
of incommensurate wishes.


Slow, blue, stiff
are forms

of crowd behavior,

mass hysteria.

Come close.

The crowd is made of
little gods

and there is still
no heaven

Formally, the first two sections are built up out of incomplete sentences, the first a dependent clause, the second a complex noun phrase, while the third section entails three short sentences. The second of these three sentences consists of just two words addressing the reader, and is the one from which Armantrout has claimed her title, so that the title functions as a kind of caption, highlighting just this moment in the text.

The first section is almost archetypal Armantrout, invoking as it does her favorite social form, the family, suggesting at one point the violence of childbirth, at a second the ontological status of categories &, finally, a deep emotion that may (or may not) signal dysfunctionality. The “As if” sets the entire section atilt, so that we don’t read “gave birth” for what in some ways it is, the true verb phrase of all that follows. Armantrout pulls back on this verb, I think, precisely to foreground what follows.

One might read the second section as the simplest of metaphors – Armantrout avoids using the word flowers at the end of the first line, replacing it with a quality very much in keeping with the ones that appeared in quotation marks in the previous sections. Then she offers this same sense of the qualitative again, this time in a more conventional (and, here, italicized) mode: beautiful. The final couplet appears again to offer us the same image without actually deploying the noun flowers. Note the three stages of her depiction – the first suggests motion while stopping it, the second implies plurality &, not coincidentally suggests bees so as to reinforce the image of what is not said, but the last line brings in – as had the last line of the first section – emotion & specifically emotion that has somehow gone beyond. The parallelism of the first two sections, these incomplete sentences ending in periods, is nearly as important as what is being said.

The third section’s first sentence could be read – in fact, it would be hard not to – as tho it also were a depiction of flowers and/or a roster of “traits.” The idea that such traits represent crowd behavior takes us back not only to the frozen swarm of the previous section, but to the whole families of the first. Characterizing them as mass hysteria again calls up the scream of the first section, the incommensurate emotion of the second. All of this thus far is built, for all purposes, around a single image of flowers in a vase. No wonder then that Armantrout wants us to look closely.

So that the final pair of couplets, the last complete sentence (albeit the first one to close with no period) offers us that which is incommensurate, that these are, flower by flower (child by child) little gods born into a universe in which there is still / no heaven.

If, as a reader, you aren’t paying close attention, a poem like this goes down so easily & lightly. But if, instead, you read it three, four, ten times, the depths, the cohesion, the themes & their underlying starkness will exhaust you.

This is a story that Armantrout explores over & over. On the page immediately prior to “Close” is a simpler version, entitled “Blur”:

I’m called home
but don’t go.

I have enough past
and future

to accompany me now.

The solitary one
interferes with itself.

They should give up

Four simple sentences divided across five stanzas. That third stanza, lone line, would in fact function as a kind of formal hinge if only Armantrout hadn’t pushed that last one-word line in the final couplet out to the right (which I suspect is why she did that). The first two sentences start with “I,” but the last two turn in different directions. The third would appear to talk about the narrator in the third-person. The fourth, tho, uses the most mysterious of words here, They, reminding us that someone or something in the first line of poem must have been doing the calling, but without us ever know just who it might be.

At one level, I think it’s easy to read this as a poem about death, about accepting the limits of one’s life, but at another level it appears to be about obligation, perhaps family responsibility, and the resistance that is the self, that may in fact be what defines the self. That at least is how I read what I take to be the key word in this poem, interferes. It’s a wonderful choice of words, suggesting exactly the push-pull dynamic that I think Armantrout is after.

But what then do we make of the title “Blur.” It’s not a caption like “Close” but suggests something else, perhaps that very push-pull dynamic or possibly even the figure implied by They. It’s a title that I relate – and this may be my own projection here – to the cover image of Next Life, a photograph by Albert von Schrenk-Notzing of “The medium Eva C. with a materialization on her head and a luminous apparition between her hands, 17 May 1912.” The materialization looks like a little cap, too small for Eva C’s head & at an angle that makes no sense. The apparition looks like an electrified thread, glowing mid-air.

There is, I think, a serious sociological dimension to such off-shoots of random spirituality as the ectoplasm-seeking psychics or the 19th century movement that gathered around, say, forms such as theosophy, aspects of spirituality seeking new modes of expression in an Enlightenment universe. I don’t think that Armantrout is interested in that. But I do think she wants to investigate, in almost every poem here, the role of spirituality in a world that is no longer god-infested, tho without particularly investigating all the ways its usual expression, religion, leaves vast swaths of devastation in its wake. It’s not that Armantrout sees no devastation, but for that she usually employs a different model, that of the family.