Friday, February 02, 2007

There is something about the construction of a book as object that ensures that a 78-page hard-cover volume of poems will appear to be “slender” in ways that a comparable paperback original will not. This makes it possible, I think, to mistake Rae Armantrout’s new book, Next Life, for something more frail, less searing in its intensity, maybe less fierce in its intelligence, than it really is. At least until you open the cover. When you do that, the best analogy may just be an improvised explosive device.

I’ve been reading Rae Armantrout’s poetry now, almost daily as it happens, for close to forty years. I’ve seen most of these poems in various stages of composition as well – Armantrout is perfectly capable of trying 20 different variations on the same two or three lines until she gets one that is, from a reader’s perspective, completely unsettling. At the same time, Armantrout writes the “simplest,” and “most clear” poems of any of the language poets. But consider this, which is in fact titled “Clear”:

An old woman is being led through the parking lot by two girls. They hold her hands and speak in energetic, explanatory bursts while she cranks her head this way and that as if expecting something which has yet to appear.

As if the crystalline clarity of this ocean pool, cradled in two lava arms, meant something which we had been waiting to hear, something indistinguishable from meaning itself, and unchanging, so that, finally, it’s we who turn to go.

How can a poem that is just three sentences, two paragraphs, two images, be at once as clear as the pool cradled in two lava arms and so completely enigmatic? At one level, I read this as tho watching a magic trick. I watch it over & over & still can’t see how the card or the coin or the suddenly released white dove reappears. I think there’s a correlation at some deeply pre-rational level between those two lava arms and the “old woman” that completely transforms the analogy, rendering it simultaneously three-dimensional & entirely mysterious. Because you couldn’t diagram it if you tried.

That mystery, the unnamable, a persistent dread, is a constant in Armantrout’s work, never far from the suburban mall surfaces she renders with greater accuracy than anyone in my generation. Consider, again, the relation of ants to war and – especially! – to mother in this poem just two pages further in. Or, for that matter, televised. It’s entitled, rather in the classic Armantrout manner, “Yonder”:


Anything cancels
everything out.

If each point
is a singularity,

thrusting all else
aside for good,

”good” takes the form
of a throng
of empty chairs.

Or it’s ants
swarming a bone.


I’m afraid
I don’t love
my mother
who’s dead

though I once –
what does “once” mean? –
did love her.

So who’ll meet me over yonder?
I don’t recognize the place names.

Or I do, but they come
from televised wars.

Now go back and explain the function & meaning of that first couplet. I don’t think that’s possible, not in any easy sense, but it’s essential to the construction of meaning in this poem.

One notices in Next Life a shift in direction in Armantrout’s concerns, which have been fairly consistent going back to her first book, Extremities. The social commentary of the cultural quotidian, the surrealism of the mall and suburban “commercial strips” has almost entirely dropped away. What remains are the sort of short, intense philosophical poems that are the ones that remind some of Armantrout’s readers not of any affinity with language poetry, but with the work of her most direct ancestor, Emily Dickinson. I won’t be surprised if some readers aren’t ambivalent about this new, sharper focus. And I won’t even be shocked if someone doesn’t decide to declare Armantrout to be a spiritual, if not religious, poet either. But I do think it will be impossible for people to read these poems and think of her as a “slight” or even “fun” read – the poems may sometimes look like the work, say, of Robert Creeley or of a more recent writer like Graham Foust, but the intensity of Armantrout’s new poems can be draining on an attentive reader, even when she employs her well-loved sense of humor, as in “Remote”:

The breath coming
to rest

like a small frog
at the bottom of a fish tank,

then darting up to surface
now again,

is mine?


Remote and, by now, automated
distress calls fill the air.


Do you believe this?

shifts a small weight
there and back.

My self-reflection shames God
into watching

Considering what the possibilities are for an image to attach to that first section (my favorite is the head of the poet plunged into the aquarium, not just because it’s hysterically funny, but also because it reminds me in some perverse way of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck”), the starkness of those last two lines make me want to sit up and say “Whoa!” I want to write that the word self-reflection is the key to this poem, but the use of the word small two lines before seems at least as pivotal, as does in the second section, the term automated. There’s not one wrong word in this poem. Indeed, there may not be one in this entire book.