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Just Saying: On Rae Armantrout’s Latest Book
I opened Just Saying for the first time to the second poem, “Instead.” I was immediately struck by the first section, which reads:
To each his own
hacked large stones
into the shapes of
After this it jumps to a new section about the non-existence of ghosts; the third section contemplates the attention-loving nature of pain, personified. The poem ends “out here,” in what may be the woods.
Notice the braiding of voices in the excerpt: the thwarted cliché-speaker of the first line morphs into an ironic deadpan artist in the second, just before we hear from the matter-of-fact historian of the last four lines. Notice, too, that Armantrout performs an economical six-line mapping of our post-recession, pre-apocalyptic world; I get a frisson when I read these lines. I love having to make that leap from the idea of a “severance package” in a cold, gray office in middle America somewhere, to those ancient shapes the doomed Incas left behind, on a mountainside in Peru. I love the surprise and pleasure of the whole poem’s turns and twists. I love how it ends:
slim trunks bend
Suddenly we’re out in the open, out in Nature-with-a-capital-N, and it returns me to the Incas, to their carved stone figures, to what will remain. Not pain, which is human, or animal at least; not ghosts, which derive from the human world, too; not even the Incan monoliths, not for eternity; but Nature. To mountains and trees and dirt. The earth. To a deep, silent peace, through which pain and disarray have recently passed—note the bent “slim trunks,” along with the “stripped twigs” in an earlier line—but which are gone now. Leaving nothing but the world, or whatever’s left of it, which isn’t much, if even the final word, “way,” that should cap this poem has been swallowed, disappeared.
…poetry, at least the poetry I value, can reproduce our conflicts and fractures and yet be held together in the ghost embrace of assonance and consonance, in the echoed and echoing body of language.
Whose life is a single narrative or an extended metaphor? Metaphorically speaking, such poems are fenced yards. Is this the kind of control we should aspire to? What’s on the other side of that fence?
When people ask me what I mean in a poem or whether I mean it, I’m stymied. I mean/don’t mean. I mean that experience is double, that doubleness is the essence of consciousness.
…clarity need not be equivalent to readability. How readable is the world? There is another kind of clarity that doesn’t have to do with control but with attention, one in which the sensorium of the world can enter as it presents itself.
What is the meaning of clarity? Is something clear when you understand it or when it looms up, startling you?
I suppose, ultimately, I write to keep myself awake and alive. I could call what I do a sort of “poetry of witness”—except, instead of witnessing great events, I tend to focus on the interventions of capitalism into consciousness.
[Writing is] a way to stay awake and active in a society that discourages that, a society where, as Victor Hernandez Cruz says, “every stupidity is made available just to jam the circuits.”
…you’ve been listening to a loud noise, there’s been a television on, a stereo on, a factory going close to you, and suddenly it stops…you know how that feels when that happens to you. Suddenly, everything looks different, too. There’s been this racket, and then there isn’t.
(All quotes are taken from Rae Armantrout’s Collected Prose, Singing Horse Press, 2007)
The last section of a poem called “Ghosted,” also from Just Saying, reads:
On the wall in a coffee bar,
A model’s arms
And stern, pretty face
Frame a window
(where her chest should be)
and a clear sky beyond
She’s nothing but body parts, that model: arms, a pretty face, and the bracketed suggestion of a chest. Instead of a chest, though, there’s the window, and through the window: clear sky. It’s creepy, but complicated. Creepy because this café is using the top half of a woman as wall decoration. Complicated because what’s missing from her body provides us, and the speaker, with a view of clear sky. Clear sky meaning sunshine. Clear sky meaning, maybe, relief. Here we sit in a place of human comforts: with coffee, shelter, a view, and human companionship. Of course, the one semi-recognizable “human companion” on site is the dismembered figure of the model. And as far as “clear sky” goes, we can’t just ignore that little bracketed phrase “(where her chest should be).” It reminds us that something is missing, that a clear sky is also an empty one. It recalls the holes in the tattered leaves of the poem’s first section, and the hole in the ground into which the speaker’s friend disappeared in the second. All of these images and their echoes linger in the mind, separate but together. Rae Armantrout has said: “You can hold the various elements of my poems in your mind at one time, perhaps, but those elements may be hissing and spitting at each other.”
The poet Ange Mlinko has said, “I would trade the bulk of contemporary anecdotal free verse for more incisive, chilling poetry like Armantrout’s.” Me too.