Rae Armantrout: “Our Nature”
Look at an old picture of yourself—a candid group photo is best, but a posed head shot or even a painting will do. How would you have described yourself back then? Would you describe yourself the same way now? How much do you have in common with the person whose portrait you see? Did you want to stand out? Can you feel proud, special, melancholy, or just resigned when you realize how much you have grown up and changed? In “Our Nature,” Rae Armantrout pursues such questions in her characteristically terse, harsh style.
An Armantrout poem can make no claim, and pursue no query, without trying to undermine its own terms: under the patient pressure of her short lines, key words in this poem, such as “nature” and even “latest,” can seem to come apart from their usual meanings, even as we come apart from our previous selves. Like most of her poems, “Our Nature” invites us to seek ironies and uncover the dubious axioms under each phrase. It also stands out, among those poems, for the open pathos of its ending, which addresses the life of an ambitious artist, and perhaps also the afterlife of an art movement, even while it asks about the changes that can pry any of us apart from our friends.
The poem begins with a look at an old image, or perhaps a general claim about the images that remain in our minds:
The very flatness
makes for nostalgia
in the connoisseur.
All pictures are “flat” compared to real life, though some revel in their flatness, while others disguise it; what could be flat, in particular, about a portrait, and why would that “flatness” provoke “nostalgia”?
A portrait presents one moment, in space and in time: it is thus “flat” compared to the four-dimensional (in time and space) extent of a life, and looking back over that life might well prompt “nostalgia.” But to be “flat” or two-dimensional is also to look unreal. Is all portraiture unrealistic, in words or in visual art? Are all our mental portraits “unrealistic” as well, turning evolving personalities into all too comprehensible objects, as if we could possess the people we knew?
Considered thoroughly enough, do our ideas about people dissolve, as a picture dissolves or loses focus, when looked at for long? The second stanza, like a second take or a second look at the same picture, enacts that dissolution, with help from puns:
Here’s the latest
little lip of wave
and spread thin.
Here a person’s “little lip” becomes the edge of a wave. Armantrout, who has always lived on the West Coast (in San Diego and in northern California), once censured another poet for comparing the sea to beads, since “the ocean can resemble a vertical sequence of discrete, solid objects in almost no way imaginable.” “Our Nature” seems to assert that we, too, are less like “discrete, solid objects” than our habits—and other poets’ “portraits”—assume. Our impressions of the people we think we know are more like a series of low waves, coming at us and then, usually, falling away. That image of liquid succession (“the latest” impression, and then something later still) gains force and irony from its contrast with the self-contained, solid, “hard” stanza in which it rests.
If the poem ended there it would be a cryptic rebuke, reminding us with a dry, uneasy authority that people always change. But Armantrout has more to say. Let’s say / it” becomes a hinge on which the poem turns, leaving the self-contained, pronoun-less quatrains behind. In their stead, we find one extended sentence, broken into one- and two-line bits, about a group of friends or allies who stuck together long enough to share adventures and to establish a “loyalty” later overruled, or contradicted, by the ambitions of its members (“our infatuation / with our own fame”).
Earlier Armantrout described everyone; now she speaks primarily of an “us,” who might be her generation, or her friends, or her political and artistic allies. The figure in Armantrout’s poem, one of the people included in her pronoun “we,” wants to show inner consistency as well as moral worth (we might say, encompassing both, that she wants to show character). But she is betrayed by her nature: “our nature,” human nature, or the nature of art, which undermine whatever character they construct. It is the nature of artists and their “gang” to strive for eminence, even at the cost of disconnection, as it is the nature of youthful “gangs” to grow apart. Outlaws of the Old West, quick on the draw, like the guerrilla movements of more recent decades, sometimes prided themselves on how they could “blend in // with the peasantry,” escaping the law. Remembering their subterfuges, Armantrout also invokes bands of youth, in schools or in street gangs, whose loyalty to one another cannot last, since it conflicts with their members' desire to get ahead in the adult world. (The young W.H. Auden, too, wrote that “love” required the “death of the old gang.”)
It’s tempting to associate Armantrout’s “old gang” with the real people who became her friends and allies early in her career: the Language writers, named after the magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, one of several small journals from the 1970s (others include Hills and This) whose young, left-wing contributors declared their opposition to first-person lyric, to traditional narrative, and to any poems that emulated clear prose. Other Language writers included, on the West Coast, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, and Bob Perelman, and in New York City, Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein.
It is hard to read “Our Nature,” which comes from Armantrout’s book Veil (2001), without thinking about how Language writing, with its sometime promise of ego-less investigation, of radical anti-subjective critique, actually became (for better and worse) a name for a group of sometimes superb individual poets and poems. Armantrout recently collaborated with nine other Language writers on The Grand Piano (2006–10), “an experiment in collective autobiography” that tells the story of their West Coast scene. She seems, in retrospect, essential to that scene, though she did not publish prolifically in the early years, when she ran the reading series that gave The Grand Piano its name. And yet she admits, “I spent most of the 70s wondering whether I was in or out of the new nexus [of the Bay Area avant-garde]. (In that way it was a little bit like junior high.)." She remembers asking, at that time, "What was this new poetics that later came to be known as ‘language poetry’ and was I part of it or not?”
For a writer of Armantrout’s skeptical temperament, emerging from a shared movement or moment, the desire to stand out—though perhaps part of “our nature”—must have been especially vexed and vexing. Her poems remain ambivalent about ambition, as her halting manner—the matter of this self-critical poem, with its silenced “fast gun”—might imply. Yet they stay ambivalent about loyalty, too, since loyalty can discourage critical thought. Hopes for group belonging, no less than aspirations to singularity, make Armantrout ask herself how she knows what she knows, and what her wishful thinking might conceal. “I do wonder,” she asked in The Grand Piano, “how much we, ‘language poets,’ identify with and/or objectify one another.”
Readers who single out Armantrout among other Language writers often notice her links to traditions of lyric poetry, that is, to brief poems whose singularities of sound represent a single voice, a single speaker, a putatively unique inward life. Writing in the New Yorker in 2010, when Armantrout won the Pulitzer Prize, Dan Chiasson claimed that Armantrout “takes the basic premises of Language writing somewhere they were never intended to go: towards … a single individual’s … uniquely broken heart.” We may hear in this poem, with its rueful plural (“we,” not “I”), anticipatory reaction to such praise.
Yet Armantrout’s lines in “Our Nature” do not fit just one movement or moment, nor do they confine themselves to one art. How can we all succeed together in an enterprise where individuality and unique achievement is held out as the goal and the prize? And what if that enterprise is not art, but life? Most of us want to be “singled out” or noticed in some way, even if we do not try to write new kinds of poems; most of us also want, or at one time wanted, to stand with our peers, to keep our friends, to stay close.
We rarely get both; sometimes we get neither one. That broader disappointment informs Armantrout’s lines too: they end up with something like a tragic sense of how we grow up, itself the kind of sense sometimes, and wrongly, denied to the densely suggestive and demanding poetic traditions from which her style arose.
And yet the word “nature,” repeated in the penultimate line, should put us on alert, since Armantrout’s poems so frequently (as she has put it) “examine claims to naturalness and objectivity carefully to find out what or who is being suppressed.” Whose nature is ours? Was it always ours? Who are “we”? Should we resign ourselves to the alienating consequence of our ambitions, as inevitable as waves on sand, or can we construct some better choice?
Armantrout elsewhere likens her poems’ fitful movement to the mythical worm Ouroborous, which ate its own tail. Punning lines from her poem “Falling: I” warn us not to believe the stories we tell ourselves: “To swallow your own tail— // or tale— / is no longer // an approved / form of transportation.” It does not say what we should swallow, nor how we should transport ourselves, instead. Similarly, the ending of “Our Nature,” having pointed out “our infatuation,” leaves us with no clear place to stand, no more reliable substitute for the fallacies and hypocrisies, the cognitive and emotional mistakes, that Armantrout’s melancholy juxtapositions diagnose. Instead, the idea of a person with one nature, capable of sitting for a unique portrait, falls down when we try to make it explain “our nature,” to say why we do what we do.
Armantrout’s poems work hard not to settle on stable answers to the questions they raise. Be true to yourself, be yourself, pursue your own nature: Armantrout’s friable phrases cast some suspicion on those all-American instructions, whether or not we can learn to live without them. Her memoir True (1997) sets her desire to escape her cliché-ridden blue-collar childhood against her own suspicion about the stories of artists’ escapes: “Somehow my life was leading me to the conclusion that received opinion was my enemy,” she writes, adding, “I’m afraid, now, that I’m making my own myth.” We may not be able to live without myths, but we should not let ourselves get trapped by them. Neither the myth of solidarity forever, nor the romance of the individual becoming herself at all costs, nor any heroic story of rebels defying old norms and creating great change in the arts, survives the careful scrutiny of Armantrout’s curt, melancholy, and chastened phrases, which ask instead how we can remain, or even become, the people that we think we are.
Steph Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and...