By Rae Armantrout, © 2009 Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT,
A Review by Ken Jacobs
Rae Armantrout’s Versed, both the product and producer of intense concentration, never lies down -- no matter what the scope, no matter how I define the perimeters of the elements of the book, whether limiting my attention to the poems, the series of poems, or the segments that comprise the poems. When I seek to identify the found or source material cobbled within or the vividly panned landscapes and environs of southern California that act not so much as metaphor, but as sign posts that draw my attention outward, other elements compel me toward the interior. The sparse lines incapable of explaining the collection’s gravity, the text functions as a singularity ballasted by dark matter(s), and all the elements, the parts and wholes, contained in this intensely formal book silently demand.
Rather than transmit or communicate insight this poetry of experience balks at analysis and conclusion. The book, full of lean observations that stand alone, could offer insight and the poet as seer, but here insight suspects itself, as the opening poem “Results” warns:
Click here to vote
in this series pilot.
Click here to transform
Facile engagement with these poems will result in something akin to the responses of mass audiences voting on reality television or at large sport stadiums, a false engagement and participation in an observer’s media. This won’t fly here -- here the reader must come versed and ready. If you bring nothing to this you will come away with nothing. The poem ‘Resemblance’ offers:
Would I like
a vicarious happiness?
Though I suspect
yours of being defective
or “Fetched,” punning on fetching:
your mom’s phantasmic
The poem warns other poets and readers of what they will not find here. Here, in lean, exquisitely crafted poems, logic and paradox contend provisionally. The poet and reader do not meet so much as engage at the same site.
Aphorism and truth telling, what we might expect in a spare poem, serve as components within a device in which the parts, their boundaries fluid, provide gaps between which I peer, or experience a release and the passage in time mimicked in logical and affective leaps, the distances between the parts present. This relation to the text as signs of affect or sound or semantic resonance afford an experience and thrill far from exhausted within me.
And wonderfully, whatever methods constructed this book, chance appears absent. When chance predominates a text I demand that it pass the Turing Test and prove itself human. Never did I feel that the assembly of fragments and source material was a mere cut and paste operation. The precision of an expert and knowing hand, the making of a precise overdetermining machine that generates experience, rather than transmitting affective states or data, presents itself like a genetic algorithm that asks, “what about all this writing,” and answers with more writing. The effects glut my ability to sort.
The title “Versed” puns on general mastery and poetics, or perhaps more importantly the concerns of the line versus the prose poem. The titles of the poems themselves could be titles for a computational linguistics textbook: “Versed,” “Fetch,” “Address,” “A Resemblance,” “Outer,” “Operations,” “Name Calling,” “Guess,” “Locality,” “Amplification,” “Dilation,” etc. Amid bitter proscription -- “Are you turned on/by chimeras?” -- the whole series performs an impassioned & sometimes dogged engagement of language, of verse.
Rae Armantrout is a poet who has worked in the margins. Her compatriots located and indicted “official verse culture,” identified themselves as outside and opposed to what they regarded as the moral laxity of dominant forms. Their methods and formal innovations are now co-opted and influential and suffer the inevitable dilution that comes with influence. The series of poems “Versed” examines concerns, insists on principles, casts doubt upon methods and goals:
Some think we can
achieve escape velocity
if only we can make
our thoughts bounce
harder and harder off
the near walls –
the limits –
of what is known,
what is trite
about these characters
And many of these poems address that disillusionment, of not having escaped, and perhaps the surprising disappointment that rhetorical mastery will not stave off death. These poems illume these failures of language, its inadequacy in achieving goals that can hardly be named:
conceived as illusory
to underlie the real,
And much of this series catalogs desire and drive: “Hunger and Lust/arose separately/and then paired up by chance.” Language, and the things that language can do, rest alongside the body in this series. The nuances of desperation felt when language fails, when bodies, your body, fail, cohabitate,
on the “It Girl’s”
of fame’s emptiness
The wry humor of a dead stare reflects in subjects absented in or by mass media, a subject constructed in a puerile venue to meet venal desires, a product of a collective failure, a misuse of new medias and language, undead like the vampires in the earlier poem “Wannabe.”
With near desperation, images, and mini-narratives of illness, and an ambivalence toward self-preservation in the midst of pain – “It’s my body!/Don’t let me! Don’t touch me!” -- Armantrout fuses her regard for mortality to masterful and ethical use of language regarding ends, real ends:
Look – I’m cooperating!
I can pull myself apart
and still speak
A crowd (scene) of cells, growing wildly,
by random access to stock types,
(Play any role you like and go on
forever. Who is speaking?)
Able to draw blood vessels to itself
by emitting a mock distress call.
and in “Relations”,
because no set
can be complete.
These intensely formal poems engage in the recursive process of self-referentiality, some more explicitly than others some more concerned than others. Here the tighter the loop, the more perseverative the operation by which the poem is executed. The book exhausts this conceit of formality: that a poem may exist as an abstract function working out semantic & grammatical algorithms, yet throughout the falsity of this empty formalism is asserted; an idealism measured by its amplitude & vector yet bloodless is questioned in “New Genres”:
The existence of the spirit
should remain an open --
so foreclosed --
Pockets of self-reference arise. As if I
could read the mind of the creator,
I already see that the father
is the stalker
An indictment of false closure found in so many lyric poems and so much a part of the lyric tradition, is reiterated but tempered with a compassion and understanding of the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of escape from the demands of genre seemingly bound to social and biological imperative. Whether as palliative or cure pointers barb outward to “real” matters, to the absurdities, joy and bitterness of living and with those barbs, those pointers, the formal infuses the “real” and vice versa.
The second series, “Dark Matter”, questions who we are as mortal beings, dependent and sometimes reveling in the use of language by which we locate in space and time, often our only tool with which to reveal –
is all around us”
It’s a place,
where we don’t exist.
This last segment of “Around,” the first poem in the series “Dark Matter,” may seem like a summary or closure of the lyrical or sardonic observations about the passage of time, of mortality and death, but the concerns with the constraints of language, how we are limited by the metaphors and construction of language eclipse those apparent topics. In the previous section of the poem someone seeks a place to lay their ashes, guided by a hyper-capitalist through a ruined paradise “..shown through/ by a sort of realtor” while a companion considers the snorkeling that might be done nearby. Here the limits of intimacy, of self-interest, of property and, we imagine, the continent reflect the limits of language to address this kind of end.
Throughout the book doubt assaults, questions limit, but even in this negativity language offers a kind of transcendence, not through sophistry but through wonder.
It’s as if
can never be
to replace itself
with a bit of racket
In this brilliant book offered by a poet deeply versed in the traditions of poetry ideas are things and things ideas easily slipping back and forth into each other. Here the page as space and verse as time conflate, here the power of language emits between poles:
Only the twins.
Positive and negative
push or pull
on who’s asking.
Who is asking?
Such powerful language, reflects Armantrout’s deep engagement with the ethical concerns of intimacy and finally invites, challenges and welcomes return.
Ken Jacobs was born in Orono, Maine and has lived in and about Washington D.C. for more than thirty years. He splits his days between talking about poetry and software and putting his keyboard to use.