Saturday, August 31, 2019

NEXT LIFE --Rae Armentrout

Rae Armentrout

Rae,Armantrout is a poet of intensely private language whose seeming fragments of sentences, scenes and interior recollections still read vividly, provocatively.A member of the Language group of poets whose other members include Ron Silliman, Bob Perleman and Lynn Hejinian among other notables, she has distinguished herself from the frequently discursive style that interrogates the boundaries between the nominal power of language and the contradictions that result when conventional meaning rubs against insoluble fact, Armantrout's poetry is brief, terser, more taciturn and pared to the essential terms and the sensations they conflate. More autobiographical, perhaps, more concerned with raising a sense of genuine autonomy from the words one employs to define direction and purpose, Armantrout's poetry is an on going inquiry about what lies beyond our expectations once they've been given the lie. As in this fine collection's title,what is the "Next Life"? What she leaves out is fully formed by its absence;

We wake up to an empty room
addressing itself in scare quotes.

“Happen” and “now”
have been smuggled out,

to arrive safely in the past tense.

We come home to a cat
made entirely of fish.

Where a good many poets lavish their subjects with an overflow of language that twists and turns and deliberately problematizes syntax to achieve effects that are more stunts than perception or even an interrogation of an elusive notion, Armantrout's poetry is strong, stoic, lean to the degree that what remains are the resonances of a personality witnessing the truth when internal idealism and material fact don't compliment each other. Armantrout's poetry is a cool voice intoning over the varied scraps and arcana of experience, and crisply discovers, underlines and
speaks with a curt irony. There are things we've said we were, there are the things we've become, and there are the words we first used to make our declarations asserted again, though mutated, altered, given a few shades of new meaning to meet the demands of a life that becomes more complicated with small, distracting matters. There's a blunted, occasionally jagged feeling to Armantrout's lines, a cadence that will alternate between the hard, acute image, half-uttered phrases that seem like mumbles, and the juxtapositions of word and deed
that expose an archive of deferred emotion.


"That's a nice red" you said,
but now the world was different

so that I agreed

with a puzzled
or sentimental certainty

as if clairvoyance
could be extended to the past.

And why not?

With a model sailing ship
in the window
of a small, neat house

and with a statuette
of a s t able boy
on the porch,
holding a lamp up

someone was making something clear--

perhaps that motion is a real character.


How should we feel
about "the eraser"?

"Rampages" wears one expression
while "frantically" wears another:

conjoined twins,
miraculously separated
on Judgement Day?

Then "only nothingness"
is a bit vague.

But words are more precise than sight--


The very old man shuffles very slowly
not between
the white lines of a crosswalk
but down one of them.

Like a figure in a dream,
his relations to meaning
is ominous.--

These are voices of of a consciousness that surveys several things at once;time is collapsed, details are suggested, associative leaps abound, and the phrase is terse, hard. Above all, this is a poetry of concentrated power; what is spoken here, the dissonance between expectation and the manner of how perception changes when idealism greets actual events and deeds, are the the things one considers late night, when there's nothing on cable, you've read your books, and only a pen and paper remains; what of me remains in the interactions, the negotiations, the compromises that constitute "making my way" in the world we might inhabit?This is a city of comings and goings, of people and their associations dancing and struggling with the invisible forces of repulsion and attraction; one seeks to transcend what it is that surrounds them, but find that their autonomy is merely a fiction shared only with the self when a community is lacking to applaud or argue with one's declarations of self. Armantrout gets to that small and hardly investigated phenomenon of how all of us--as readers, writers, consumers, family members--create our own dissonances in a manner that is intractable and ingrained. This is a fine, spare , ruminative volume by a singular writer.
The idea that Rae Armantrout's work is difficult is, as has been remarked about "Ulysses", is made too much of. There are items, phrases, condensed cadences and references that need to be parsed, examined, considered thoughtfully , but as with Joyce's musicality , wit and sensuality, there is a tangible presence in Rae's work with which a reader can frame their own response. It's an old distinction that one notices in the best voices--the emphasis is more on creating a sense of things rather than making sense, "making sense", in this case, being that the one wants to define and contain experience as if it were a commodity. What Rae achieves (and what Stephen Burt spoke to in his New York Times review of "Versed") is that the facts of our lives, the joy, the agony, the aches and illnesses, are too slippery in their larger implications to place within convenient brackets. She understands what happens when a recollected event and a later idea merge in the stream of the alert psyche.Armantrout has always organized her collections of poetry as though they were works in themselves. Versed brings two of these sequences together, offering readers an expanded view of the arc of her writing. The poems in the first section, Versed, play with vice and versa, the perversity of human consciousness. They flirt with error and delusion, skating on a thin ice that inevitably cracks: “Metaphor forms / a crust / beneath which / the crevasse of each experience.” Dark Matter, the second section, alludes to more than the unseen substance thought to make up the majority of mass in the universe. The invisible and unknowable are confronted directly as Armantrout's experience with cancer marks these poems with a new austerity, shot through with her signature wit and stark unsentimental thinking. Together, the poems of Versed part us from our assumptions about reality, revealing the gaps and fissures in our emotional and linguistic constructs, showing us ourselves where we are most exposed. 

Her method, perhaps, is the reverse of that of Ashbery or Ammons,two poets who have, with frequent inspiration, written at length to suggest the collisions of subjective responses to the material plain. Rae Armantrout gets the exact moment when a history of impressions meet each other on the long highway. She places the reader in the moment, amid the particulars her poems highlight. The reader finds something of their story in her rigorously pared-back sharing. The readers get it, and it would be nice if her being awarded a Pulitzer indicates that larger media are done ghettoizing poets. In the meantime, it's a good thing that she has the award. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2019



There is much crossover between prose and poetry forms in contemporary literature, which one can read about in David Lehman's excellent anthology The Great American Prose Form. What he argues in his comprehensive introduction is that we need to rid ourselves of the idea that postmodernism was the advent of writers blurring genre boundaries and realize that writers, poets, and prose writers both, have been mashing together the forms for quite a while; rigid ideas of what "poetry" is should be loosened because of the way the better (and lesser poets) of the day compose their verse won't obey some one's global dictum. 

The marvel of the anthology is that the selections contradicts the general assumption of casual fans of contemporary poems--those readers who haven't much knowledge of American poetry besides a blurred and indistinct knowledge of the Beats--is that the prose poem, as a form, isn't a radical and irreducible avant-garde gesture only recently dropped on our country's credulous readership. (Although we could use more bomb -throwers and trashers of tattered form to allow us to sharpen our wits, collectively, or at least argue constructively about what matters when we use words to describe events and things and feelings about the world we attempt to navigate with a minimum of the meanness of spirit). As the subtitle insists, it begins roughly with Poe with his many effusions that roamed beyond his Gothic decadence and wondered about the metaphysical of the universe that is always striving to balance its harmonies against man's self will, and taking us through the chatty  and unarmored paragraph-based lyricism of coming generations, a  diverse collection from TS Eliot, HD, Amy Lowell, Billy Collins, Gertrude Stein, The Beats, Leslie Scalapino, Michael Palmer, an impressive roster of writers, scribblers, musers, ponderers and poets all who've found themselves , at various times, realizing that even the relative freedom of "free verse" was not enough to extend language beyond the limits of what a sentence can quest to uncover and address and turned to the paragraph, that block of sentences on which our most exploitable accounts of what we experience in the world we explore and attempt to drive into the deepest parts of their individual mysteries. 

 This is not the paragraph that instructs, enlightens, persuades, berates or conventionally seduces, it is the paragraph as poetic expression, the act of taking what is otherwise commonplace and otherwise banal in the world and subject to a scrutiny and interrogation that might reveal a dualism otherwise obscured, or perhaps expose a universe of dualism that multiplies and continue to do so until we stop looking for them. Styles, cadences, idioms and such vary greatly here among the writers  according to their backgrounds, regions, gender , and each pen to paper, each finger to typewriter eye, each attempt to take what one knows and test against what is not already cast  in one's vernacular is a journey surprising, passionate, chaotic, incoherent and vital in keeping our language relevant and, shall   we say, self-correcting when another era's metaphors cease to give us light and instead are grown      over with such foliage that only a noxious shade is available to   us.