Q & A: Rae Armantrout

“We like to think / that the mind / controls the body.” How do bodies enter into poems? Are the “conflicting reports” we receive something that can be accounted for, or recounted in, poems?

What can lines of poems do for . . . with . . . underperforming bodies?

We thought of Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makars” and his “Lament, When He Was Sick” (“Timor Mortis conturbat me”) on reading “Outage”—how are poems vessels, as it were, for the ailing mortal human body? “Reception is spotty,” so what survives in verse?

I think you’re right that the poem addresses—or maybe a better term is, responds to—threats to the body: the body politic as well as the individual body. It begins by testing the limits of the mind/body split we tend to assume (even if we think we know better). Here the mind seems to think it can stay safe and in control while the body undergoes various experiences and even ordeals. A general or a commander in chief might receive “conflicting reports” on the results of a battle. You might send your body “on a mission” the way the government sends a soldier on a mission. The body doesn’t always live up to expectations, right? Here I’m inserting the word “body” into common phrases where a different word might go. For instance, it’s the market or some segment of the market that is generally said to be “underperforming in heavy trading.” Of course, soldiers can also “trade” weapons fire on the battlefield. In any case, in the first section of this poem, we don’t control the body as we would like to do. The body is even sprouting fruit. Tumors seem to be measured (mysteriously) by the size of fruit they resemble—i.e., the size of an orange or the size of a grapefruit. You don’t have to see the line that way—but you can. In general, I’m using the language of commerce and the language of conflict to talk about the mind/body relation.

How far does Like go?

How far does Like go? Poetry is full of comparisons and parallels. It seems to trust in resemblance. (I like to discover resemblances too.) But the value of resemblance—and the empathy it provokes—is rather starkly limited. Even twins or clones don’t literally share the same sensations. That makes me wonder what makes a self a self. My poems sometimes revolve around a nagging question.


This poem originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2010

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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