Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Trying to read a book by Rae Armantrout in a single sitting is like trying to drink a bowl of diamonds. What’s inside is all so shiny & clear & even tiny that it appears perfectly do-able. But the stones are so hard & their edges so chiseled that the instant you begin they’ll start to rip your insides apart.

In this regard, Armantrout’s books are not at all like a book of comparable length by, say, Larry Eigner or Robert Creeley & much closer in fact to the thoroughly composed volumes of Jack Spicer. Like Spicer, Armantrout is someone who benefits enormously if you contain your reading to no more than two or three pieces at a time. For one thing, you will want to read each over & over, savoring the unexpected, & the elegant constructions that sometimes just take your breath away, as in the second & final section of “Left Behind,” which is all one sentence:

Dreams unspool

with an ersatz

familiarity, conspicuously

a singer intoning “
Venice Boulevard
on a store sound system
late last night,

a crooner placing us
perhaps among flight students

”when you’re land-ing
on Highway Fi-ive

An ersatz / tongue-in-cheek / familiarity captures exactly what is at once surreal & horrific about life in Southern California, a terrain that has never been handled with more clinical disdain, not even by Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia or the neo-gothic sociology of Mike Davis. Like the hard-edged metallic versions that Jeff Koons gives to what at first appear to be balloon puppies, the world depicted in Armantrout’s poetry is instantly something we recognize – intimately – and in the same instant monstrous. Of all of the language poets, even including Barrett Watten & Hannah Weiner (who are closest to her in this regard), Armantrout has the most distinct & identifiable vision.

In a blog review of Armantrout’s work in this same book, Versed, just out from Wesleyan, Tom Beckett – a poet I think of as having used Armantrout’s influence wisely in his own writing – characterizes the logic of her poetry as

entirely phrasal. Every line break is precise as a unit of thought and speech.

That is, I think, not completely accurate. Often there is some dissonance between the cognitive & the aural and Armantrout almost always sides with the cognitive. She does this to great effect, as in the poem “Guess,” where the first line, all 13 syllables of it, is nearly double the length of any other line in the poem. The next two longest, at eight syllables each, complete the first and last couplets of the poem’s second half. That can’t be an accident. In each case, Armantrout is setting up what happens in the poem tonally more than aurally. Think, as you read the text, just how fully the second stanza comes together, as tho a lens suddenly snapped into focus revealing the speaker.


The jacaranda, for instance, is beautiful
but not serious.

That much
I can guess.

And that the view
is softened by curtains.

That the present moment
is an exception,

is the queen bee
a hive serves,

or else an orphan.


So the jacaranda
is foreign and extravagant.

It gestures in the distance.

Between there and here
you ask

what game
we should play next week.

So we’ll be alive
next week,

what you may or may not

mean to be
an impossible flirtation

The first line has more syllables than the next three combined. Yet if you broke it out into a couplet, recombining the lines that follow so that the poem’s first half is composed of exactly six couplets, the utter devastation of the word orphan would be lost, as well as the elegant closures to every stanza leading up to that last line. The length of the first line sets up not just the first section, but the entire poem. It is in fact garish in much the same way as the purple flowering tree is that so visually dominates neighborhood after neighborhood in Armantrout’s native San Diego.

In each half of the poem, the word jacaranda occurs just once, in the first line. Every other word is, in the most literal sense, entirely ordinary. And the line breaks themselves tend to be relatively flat – if one were a hardcore Projectivist, divining one’s geographic heritage & accent by such breaks, one might find the roots of this flatness in Armantrout’s ancestors in Missouri &, I believe, Oklahoma, where a lot of San Diegans first came from – they leave individual lines as simple & unadorned as next week or continuing.

Armantrout composes her books as thoroughly as Spicer ever did his. The poems are arranged thematically more than, say, chronologically. Thus the last section of “Name Calling” –


What the pudendum
to pinch off,

tries repeatedly.

What comes to
be called pleasure

– leads directly to a poem that is entitled “Pleasure.” That can “ring true” or “seem false,” I think, depending on the reader’s predisposition to seeing larger patterns in Armantrout’s work. Still, these aren’t the closed circuits of a book-as-single-suite the way we might get with Donna Stonecipher or Cole Swensen.

Versed gives us an opportunity to test these larger arcs in Armantrout’s writing, really for the first time, as it is composed in two sequences – essentially two complete books. The first of these, from which all of my comments here are taken, is likewise entitled “Verse,” the second (with a nod I suppose to Charles Alexander) “Dark Matter.” The latter section, the jacket informs us, was written largely after Armantrout was diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer, which she has written about also in The Grand Piano (and which she seems miraculously to be surviving). It’s true that a poem like “Guess,” with that little twist in the second half, was written later than most of the poems in “Versed,” but one can go back to Necromance (1991), if not all the way to Armantrout’s first book, Extremities (1978), and find analogous instances of dry fatalism.

What’s going on here is illuminated perhaps by “A Resemblance,” one of the quietest, but sharpest poems in this book:

As a word is
mostly connotation,

matter is mostly


(The same loneliness
that separates me

from what I call
”the world.”)


Quiet, ragged
skirt of dust

encircling a ceramic



”Are you happy now?”


Would I like
a vicarious happiness?


Though I suspect
yours of being defective,


Of the poem's four sections, only the second is truly depictive, in fact one of the most beautiful / terrible moments of description in any recent poetry. It is hardly an accident that the noun here is dust. One might characterize the loneliness mentioned in the first section as existential, yet the longing that is articulated later is uncharacteristic of that aesthetic. This entire poem is about loneliness – we know the answer to the question in the third section, and it’s precisely the gap between that and the one figured (absently) in the fourth that rips at a reader’s emotion. Is that Quiet, ragged / skirt of dust an objective correlative, straight out of Eliot? Even if we recall that dust is principally made up of dead skin, the answer is no – the poem ranges too far abroad for that, not unlike the gap between the spiritualism of aura and the Christianity of halo. Every word, every line break articulates these distances. And words are – right? – mostly connotation.

I’ll try to get to “Dark Matter” sometime later this week, or possibly next. I’m not going to read (reread) these poems too quickly. Light as these poems seem at first, Versed is one of the densest books around.