by Rae Armantrout
Wesleyan University Press c2007, 78 pgs.
A Review by Amy King
As the editor of MiPOesias, I have had the pleasure of publishing Rae Armantrout’s poetry, and so it is with an eagerness that I now turn to her most recent book, NEXT LIFE. A fast flip through these poems reveals Armantrout’s spare style of short lines and brief stanzas. The longest poem in this book is only 14 stanzas long, comprised primarily of couplets. Likewise, Cole Swensen’s blurb reinforces this sentiment of lightness, “…Armantrout’s work adds a window to the world; things are brighter for it, and easier to read.” In fact, the appearance of her verse lulls the reader into such deceptive ease, but brevity must not be miscalculated for simplicity. An inversion takes place: with a seeming straightforwardness characteristic of narrative verse, Armantrout points toward unspoken complexities the surface of things, from human objects to interactions, merely thinly veils – from “Away”:
The boy and girl leave
the tired woman behind
They are off
to find their real mother,
she of the golden
edible house, the
The appearance of a boy and girl possibly abandoning a tired woman is no mystery to the average citizen. She is worn, so they are off with youthful naiveté to find the next caretaker. The second stanza complicates the relationship as we infer a more established relationship with her, possibly as stepmother or adoptive stand-in, but the third and fourth stanzas don’t find the children running into the welcome arms of the desired one – we learn that the “real mother” is of “the golden/edible house, the/cunning hunger.” What might we surmise from this Hansel and Gretal lead-in? If, in fact, they are to find this hopeful figure, why is her house “edible” and how will she receive them with a “cunning hunger”? The effect of these two stanzas doesn’t lull as the traditional fairy tale prepares us; this woman might literally, emotionally, or psychologically devour her “real” children or nurture them to follow her own duplicitous example. Of course, the opposite may be true too; she may be a passionate person who nurtures with her very house. Whatever the reader concludes, it will not be a familiar, settling end. The macabre lurks below the surface of “reality,” even as it lures and appeals. The rest of the poem only compounds this reading, so that the reader is set-up by her own assumptions about a “boy and girl” premise, only to have them complicated by an outcome that is not simple but is truer than their expectations.
Armantrout works with our hopeful conditioning for happy, simple conclusions, while surfacing those “negative” underpinnings we suppress for the sake of decorum, our own sense of security, and even sanity’s sake. This poet is not afraid to acknowledge those negatives and the complications they harbor along with holding out hope against hope itself. Let’s turn to the War on Terror:
Bush vows victory
For the orphans,
We’ll hang on
to what proved useful.
Eggs are full
of flame retardant.
The war on terror is no tidy matter, and in light of that, the absurdity of Bush’s abstract proclamation is captured in the first stanza merely by the poet’s repeating it. Who are these orphans though that appear in the second stanza? It has been said that it’s impossible to put two things together side-by-side without “making sense” of them. Armantrout relies on the narrative inclinations of our minds to close the gap between Bush’s decree and the orphans that follow. Easily and literally, we understand them to be either orphans of American soldiers lost in Iraq or the Iraqis’ children who were killed in our bombings. They may also be orphans unrelated to the war, but whatever the case, most orphans battle their own kinds of real terror daily: they know hardship and the nightmares that ensue, while “victory” remains an elusive figment in word only. Armantrout takes us a step further in the third stanza with the difficulties of grandiose statements. Yes, we all like to hope we learn from strife, but this stanza conjures a pointed irony that any elaborating on her part would weaken. The irony is that strife continues as we do “hang on/to what proved useful”. History repeats itself? We learn from our mistakes? And still we forge ahead, clinging to the miracle that hanging on to the “useful” will somehow redeem us. We arrive at the fourth stanza of full eggs, believing that the useful will toughen us, make us “flame retardant.” Who are the eggs? The orphans? We, the readers? Our own baskets’ possessions wrought from the suffering we survive? And why are they “flame retardant”? Will they, or we, constantly be under fire? Must everything be flame-proofed? Are we to always be on guard, as this final stanza suggests? Whatever you ultimately leave the poem with, it will not be the placating sentiment that Bush attempts to inspire with his political speak; Armantrout assures that we are not comforted as she works those reassurances to undermine them with real terror, noting our nearly-futile and finite attempts to stave it off.
Armantrout is not a poet to be located in the tradition of the comforting or aesthetically-pleasing lyric. She understands that tradition and capitalizes on it in an effort to unsettle us from our quietude. NEXT LIFE does not make room for our complicity in a world that encourages such diminishment, whether it be based in our attentions to pop culture, our reliance on the distractions of political speak, or the insulation of toying with our own private “therapeutic” conundrums. And for that very reason, we need Armantrout more now than ever. From “Make It New”, “… and tried naming it/to evoke/the whole human situation/while/satirizing/the impulse to do so./What that name will be/is the one thing we don’t know”, and on that condition and in spite of it, we continue to open to the contradictions and complexities, becoming something beyond the surfaces we navigate by, entering a “next life” with our fingers crossed.
Amy King is the author of I'M THE MAN WHO LOVES YOU and ANTIDOTES FOR AN ALIBI. She also edits MiPOesias and teaches English and Creative Writing at Nassau Community College. Please visit www.amyking.org for more.