Monday, February 09, 2009

There is a tonal shift in “Dark Matter,” the sequence that composes the second half of Rae Armantrout’s Versed, quite unlike anything elsewhere in her writing. I want very much to remove that qualifier, “her,” but I’d have to read more than I have. Let me say it this way: there is a tonal shift here quite unlike anything I have ever seen in writing. Armantrout has envisioned death in a new way. It’s not a subject I’d thought was available for this.

Consider the poem “Anchor”:

“Widely expected,
if you will,

Things I’d say,
am saying,

to persons no longer

Yards away trim junipers
make their customary

”Oh, no thank you”
to any of it.

If you watch me
from increasing distance,

I am writing this

By the end of this short poem, the speaker, old friend “I,” exists solely as absence. Each one of us will, in time, reach that curious half-life (that is not one at all) in which others might talk to us the way I talk now to my dead grandparents who raised me or to Robert Duncan or to a dear friend who died far too soon. A one-way conversation. And one in which the other is frozen in time: I am writing this / always. What is real here is not the physical world at all, but the presence of time, time itself as presence. That’s exactly why the junipers appear, trans-temporal the way the natural world always appears. So the title of the poem refers not just to a television anchor who might have spoken the overheard words of the first stanza, but to what anchors nouns & to the way they in turn anchor speech.

The title of the poem on the facing page, “The Hole,” is even more concretely focused on absence:

A string of notes

a string of words
could be a worm
or a needle

in and out
through some hole

stitching what to what?

I imagine myself
among your thoughts,

a sleepwalker,

saying and doing things
I am ignorant of
as they occur.

These are poems, literally, from beyond the grave. Not at all in the sense of Topper or Casper or Ghosthunters, but recognizing that one will persist – a string of notes / a string of words – no longer anchored to the physical world. I understand now why a few poems that refer more narratively to Armantrout’s confrontation with cancer as such were moved out of chronological sequence back into the book’s first section, which carries the title of the collection, “Versed.” They’re the poems that conceive of illness & death in far more conventional terms –

Woman in a room near mine moans, “I’m dying. I want
to be fine. It’s my body!
Don’t let me! Don’t touch me!”

By definition,
I’m the blip
floating across my own
“field of vision . . ”

When this same narrative is actually named in the book’s second half, it’s presented in a frame that goes far past surrealism:

The woman on the mantel,
who doesn’t much resemble me,
is holding a chainsaw
away from her body,
with a shocked smile,
while an undiscovered tumor
squats on her kidney.

What keeps this from being black humor in the traditional sense of that phrase is not simply that to exist “on the mantel” (with its feminist echo of pedestal) one must be reduced to ash, which thereby renders the grotesquery of the image that follows – quite the figure for surgery – a scrambling of time (there are at least three present in this sentence). Rather, facing death unblinkingly, the fact that Armantrout was raised in a conservative protestant tradition – she’s referred to her mother as a “holy roller” – gives her access to a very different sense of the spiritual as pervasive presence. Indeed

The present
is a sentimental favorite,
with its heady mix
of grandiosity
and abjection,

These themes reach an apotheosis in Hoop, possibly the finest poem Armantrout has ever written:

God twirled
across the face of
what cannot be named
since it was not moving.

God was momentum then,
that impatience
with interruption,

stamping time’s blanks
with its own image

I’m not going to quote the poem’s longer second half, since it (and the book) ends with a twist. Somewhere in his prose, Olson says that if there is eternity, this is it, which is certainly the case. Here Armantrout literally offers us the face of God – not your stereotypical language poetry resistance to theme. It was Olson, ironically perhaps, who would be – in his own chess shorthand – “kinged by the kidney,” dying of cancer at roughly the age Armantrout is now. Her own, I believe, squatted if you will on her pancreas, the same type that took Jerry Estrin & which every story about the actor Patrick Swayze reminds us carries a minuscule survival rate. Thus far, Armantrout is doing amazingly well.

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog to learn that Armantrout has been my best friend in poetry now for nearly 40 years. If I never did anything else in poetry other than offer feedback to her incessant drafts – five versions in a day is not rare – as part of the little focus group she’s been using for decades (myself, Fanny Howe, Bob Perelman, Lydia Davis, a few others), I would have had a substantial literary career. Indeed, I used to describe Armantrout as the sister I never had until the ghost in my own life, my long dead father, up & surprised me, giving me a “real” sister when I was 50. Life is funny like that. So I don’t read a book like Versed with any sense that I’m reviewing whether it’s “good” or not – I take it as a foundational principle of life that any serious person will want to read every word Armantrout’s ever written. But, within that framework, I have no doubt that Versed is her greatest book yet. Like John Ashbery, as Armantrout has aged, she’s been writing more & more. And also better & better. It’s an unparalleled gift to us all.