Tuesday, March 31, 2009


New and Selected Poems

by Rae Armantrout

Foreword by Ron Silliman

On the borders of what do we find what? Along the knife-edge and in the disputed range, exactly what is going on here? What possibilities flit and waver? Rae Armantrout’s “Veil: New and Selected Poems” is as deceptive, as elusive a book, as it is unremittingly honest and direct. It would be difficult to find another collection of poetry whose density is hidden within such seeming sparseness. Meaning is not a closed circle. Or, if a closed circle does exist it has generated an undulating and rephrased feedback loop. In his generous foreword to this volume, Ron Silliman supposes “Anxiety seems to be an initial impulse motivating many of these poems. What the poems don’t do, ever, is propose resolution.” I’d have to agree.

This lack of resolution, though, does not preclude Armantrout’s poems from cohering to a crystalline substantiality. These poems seem preoccupied with time, yet they also exist beyond any boundary of such – though it is boundaries that are also continually returned to. We see the poems shift into form and definition, while evading fixity. And they return. In the poem, “Natural History,” we are told “Discomfort marks the boundary./ One early symptom was the boundary.” There is a strange delight in this discomfort, as if existing in this ambiguity brings with it its own peculiar set of pleasures. Take note of Armantrout’s deft use of elision and erasure – punctuation hesitates, or simply never appears. Sometimes a line has no beginning or the line may never end, while not necessarily continuing either, as we see here: “Demand for special treatment/ was an early symptom” . The poem never ends, but Armantrout does not perpetuate it either. So what is going on? The reader is left hanging in an ecstatic indeterminacy. This, of course, is a pleasure.

For all of Armantrout’s investigations of irresolution and ambiguity, “Veil” is also a remarkably deliberate and complete volume. The commitment of a “Selected Poems” is beyond that of a single poem’s one-night stand or a chapbook’s first date, it is a relationship, but one without the thick responsibility of a “Collected” or “Complete” works. But perhaps on account of Armantrout’s austerity, and her rigorous eye for revision, these poems spanning over twenty years encompass a vital whole. One is not leaping amongst disparities to find the submerged consonances, instead, the harmony of these ambiguities ring and ring - a tinnitus of uncertainty.

The earliest poems, from 1978’s “Extremities,” are for the most part pared-down to a ghostlike vision of clarity. A later volume like 2000’s remarkable “The Pretext” is in comparison positively expansive in its marriage of philosophical digression and pop cultural whimsy. Punctuation in “Extremities” is scarce compared to later volumes, as if Armantrout must first negotiate this open terrain before settling into a more nuanced adoption and dismissal of punctuation. The title poem in “Extremities” begins with a movement beyond a frame of reference; it also begins with an acute awareness of language’s ability to define and contain. “Going to the Desert/ is the old term// “landscape of zeroes”// the glitter of edges…” We also arrive at a “landscape of zeroes” – a domain many of “Veil’s” poems inhabit. These poems parlay a presence of lack – an indistinct lingering along a precipice, “…the charmed verges of presence” . These poems are also deeply concerned with information, with 1s in addition to 0s piled together in a thick swath of data and recovery.

Words echo throughout Armantrout’s poetry. A word is never a single moment or encounter, but a vibration, and by occurring at one point in her oeuvre, it begins to reverberate throughout all other pieces, both before and after. Each word is only one segment upon an expansive centipede. A poem such as “Crossing” stretches out from ‘95’s “Made to Seem” to inform “Here,” found in the afore-mentioned “The Pretext.” In the former, we see a vision of “Eastwood, Wayne/ and Bogart:// faces/ on a wall in Yuma// constitute the force required/ to resurrect/ a sense of place.” In “Crossing” these three western stars form an image – a media projection that extends into the physical world to give it place. As often occurs in Armantrout’s chimerical poetry, this image has shifted in “Here” – instead of a vision, the three action stars are a being, an identity: “In a dream,/ I’m three old actors// known for playing in Westerns.” Yet Armantrout does not end her poem here, or pause at this juncture, she continues to shift the focus of identity as we are relocated outside of the actors and “We’re on a trek through wild country/ to show how the past might have been.” While the speaker of the poem had become the three actors, now she is their companion. The ground is not pulled out from the reader; the ground is rotating. The earth is revolving!

Following this reiteration, Armantrout writes “It’s supposed to be beautiful/ to repeat a motif/ in another medium.” Not only is this statement referring to the repetition of the three actors from old Westerns, it is itself the imposition of a repeating statement – this time one that is yet to occur. What about the poem in “Veil” titled “Overhearing.” Armantrout explains that “The Tennessee Waltz,” an old song, “…is about having heard// “The Tennessee Waltz”/ before:// an almost floral/ nostalgia,// totally self-/ contained,// is what we call/ beautiful.” There is a beautiful movement back and forth in time in these poems, one that blurs the reader’s conception of temporal linearity. Each poem, each phrase can in some ways be compared to “The Tennessee Waltz,” as Armantrout’s poems, more than most poet’s even, find a course through rereading and reconstruction. Yet it is important to remember “The opposite of memory is nostalgia.” The recurrence of a word or phrase must not allow the reader a laziness or inattentive reading – the word repeated is by the very act of repeating not the same word. I will return to that thought shortly, as I would first like to consider Armantrout in relation to two other art works that have recently moved me.

The above-mentioned poem “Here” ends with another form of repetition – a recording. We find “…a boy down the street,/ firing caps/ as my son did// while a church plays/ its booming/ recording of chimes.” This is more than the dance of artifice and nature that we discussed a couple days ago in the opening sentence of William Gibson’s novel, “Neuromancer.” Gibson is calling attention to shifting valuations, what we attribute as artificial and natural, and yes, that occurs here in this final stanza, as a church plays the recording of chimes instead of chimes. But Armantrout is also emphasizing the disintegration of time, or rather a total integration in time. What I am further reminded of is the great Alvin Lucier’s piece, “I Am Sitting Alone in a Room,” where a recording of Lucier reciting his intention for the piece is repeated until individual words are subsumed by the room’s natural resonances. The disorientation is simply incredible as the recording of Lucier begins for a second time - the sympathetic communion, of communication, which was insinuated between speaker and listener is obliterated. The voice has no ego, but only environmental properties.

The shift of words throughout Armantrout’s selected works functions in a somewhat similar fashion. But what exactly are the differences? A word is often introduced to provide some scope of the constant movement of words and meanings. Slow down. Let us look at “The Creation,” which like “Crossing” comes from the book “Made to Seem.” Here we find a brilliant evocation of motion, as Armantrout asks, “Let us/ move fast/ enough, in a small/ enough space, and/ our travels/ will take first/ shape, then substance.” Perhaps we should pay attention to the order in which these travels manifest, first as shape, then substance. We can clearly see the priority of sequence in the manner in which elements are to be considered. “Impressions/ bribe or threaten/ in order to live.// Retreating palisades/ offer/ a lasting/ previousness.” I would like to further investigate the words “impressions” and “order,” as we can clearly see the duplicity of incremental meaning so important to Armantrout’s sense of word.

The transformation of a word from a noun into a verb carries a deep resonance, as does the opposite process. A noun, then can be activated into a state of “doing” instead of a simple “being,” and at the same time a verb contains within in it the stalwart identification a noun conveys. An “impression” is a noun that implies a verb’s activity – it may either be an impression of memory or that of a physical mark. Again, a shift. The word “order” is of even greater interest, as it is a polyamorous word, implying an organization, a sequence, as well as a command. It is with sequencing, with time, that the poem “The Creation” is concerned. The final lines state “To come true,/ a thing must come second.” In “Covers,” the piece directly following this last poem, we find “The idea that they were reenacting something which had been staged in the first place bothered her. If she wanted to go on, she’d need to ignore this limp chronology.” This attention to a linear ordering is important, but primarily so that its constraints may be exploded and the boundaries further pushed outward.

Again, in “Covers” we see many of the themes and tactics previously discussed. The very title is a shifting diversity of meaning. It can be a noun, a sort of blanket or sheet, or a verb, to place over or encompass. A third meaning is that of a reproduction, as in a song cover. At the start of this poem an action occurs that already suggests it is only a facsimile – “The man/ slapped her bottom/ like a man did/ in a video…” This reproduction of a videotaped action is further complicated, we learn, as “The idea that they were reenacting something which had been staged in the first place bothered her.” Ah, so we find images and actions cycling around themselves, circling and circling! Just circling! “Reference is inimical,/ We find out now;// Its Moebius strip/ Search called// Vital/ To security.// Just keep moving// And it’s about a snake.// About how long// Should we be able// to recoil? Recall?” Memory is here attached to movement. But a recoiling is a return to a coiling as well as its recognition.

In another poem we encounter “…conditions/ so numerous/ nothing can begin.” No, nothing can begin, because it is already occurring, as it has and will. But tenses are superfluous in the face of this shift, this act of what is reenacted. Rae Armantrout investigates the shifting perimeters of time and tense, yet always arrives (or has arrived) at an uncertainty. Uncertainty is at least, we must repeat to ourselves, a mutability.


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