I like when Rae tells us in a reading that her poem has sections that are separated by numbers but she’s not going to read them.  I mean there’s a world of information in that remark about how a poem appears on the page and what we don’t need to think about when we are hearing it. What’s implied I think is how much more we do get – just enough, by listening. The poem’s all there but somehow when it’s on the page it’s different and think how tedious it would be if we had to think about exactly what that difference is each time. So there’s just a tiny pleasure in each of us squirreling to our place in our thinking about what that difference is when we listen to Rae Armantrout in a reading. And it turns out the poem “Eden” that she was reading is in part about that:

This table is an antique

from the early machine age.

The indented

circle within a circle


which appears

at three inch intervals

around the base

may be a nod

to craftsmanship

or may be a summary

dismissal of same.

She goes on:

It is charming

in its mute simplicity.

Which seems to be a pleased recapitulation of the idea “we don’t know what it means.”  Is it this or that. The poem goes on to explore the impossibility of pleasing people by striving to have “an admirable character” and on the other hand just how irksome “unattractive character”(s) are in their transparent grabs for attention. And she thinks a moment about the fact that ‘transparent’ is what we say about the people trying to look good, while the creeps with their puzzling badness at least manage to buy a little time for themselves.  Finally she commiserates with us a little which begins with the word “Now” in the following stanza and also by the exhausted sharpening that occurs in Rae’s voice when she speaks that single syllable:

Now someone will say, “You don’t need cover

unless you’re standing naked at a window

shouting, “Look up here!”

Does Rae want to stand naked at a window. Probably not. But by putting herself (or something) momentarily in that position she’s totally gaining control of our attention. We just give it up for that thought. Plus I remember hearing once that if you want to get attention and change the subject in any public speaking situation you just have to say Now… Now alerts the child in us to the fact that something else is coming. But here what we get is nakedness, adult nakedness which is such a giddy relief. Rae drops that one big smashing sensation that blows all the earlier points away. The earlier numbers, the fine design. Rae often risks being a little gross in her poem. By venturing the foolish moment when someone might risk all like a cartoon character by doing something ludicrous and then telling everyone that we are doing it. That would be too much. Yet the dream of the poem is always the catlike pleasure of Rae thinking about language and here I suspect it’s occurring in some situation where someone she can’t stand is holding forth. In its entirely impersonal way this is a gossipy poem. All sorts of people might think for a moment “Me?” though probably the entirely unattractive person never wonders this because they are busily running behind a series of bushes where they are doing more of what they already do right out in front of everyone. It’s a riddly poem, all “about” the inconsistencies of language yet it’s happening on some entirely mundane “ya know” level where we feel taken up into the intimacies of her taxonomies for a moment. It’s a risky place of wisdom. It is good to know God and to know she doesn’t know.

Originally Published: November 8th, 2011

Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was educated in Catholic schools, graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet. They gave their first reading at CBGB's and then gravitated to St. Mark's church where they studied with Ted...