Poetry News

Ilya Kaminsky on Rae Armantrout's Channeling of Voices

By Harriet Staff


Ilya Kaminsky writes about Rae Armantrout for the Boston Review blog today. Kaminsky makes the distinction between the poet as "bard and storyteller—one who who sings" and other sorts, "those who chanted, cast spells, shrieked or whispered nonsense or fragments of words or images, making magic come into being through language."

Personally, I’m not in favor of keeping poets separate according to their “kind.” I prefer to think of poetic textures, temperaments, and tonalities as growing organically, intermingling and feeding on each other. The poets I most admire are those who draw from all quarters and brew a strange, peculiar music. So I’m particularly excited when I open a book by a poet seemingly “defined” by critics and find a completely different and unexpected side to their work. Rae Armantrout’s Just Saying provided just such a discovery for me.

More on Just Saying:

Of course, any longtime readers of Armantrout’s poetry could also point to Larry Eigner, Lorine Niedecker or William Carlos Williams as kindred spirits, and indeed they would be right. This is, perhaps, the moment when one realizes one is dealing with a complex, important poet—one who can be classical and innovative at the same time, often in the same line. Just Saying is filled with poems like this. Moreover, Armantrout’s poetry can be said to represent equally well both the tradition of poet as bardic spokesperson/archivist and that of poet as spell-casting witch, no matter how her critics would like to pigeonhole her. While her idiom and topical interests are emphatically those of her own place and time, meaning ours—USA, 2014, a moment of ironic, fragmentary perception, skepticism and media saturation—her spellwork is apparent on any page of this book, lurking in a “long vowel’s / vanishing circumference.”

What sort of witchery am I talking about? Take the book’s first poem, “Scripture,” which asks us to

Consider the hummingbirds,
how they’re gussied up
and monomaniacal
as the worst (or best)
of you.
Consider the bright,
streamlined emergency
they manifest.

The voice here is direct, and takes no prisoners (“monomaniacal / as worst (or best of) / you”), enjoining and insulting the reader at once. This form of address—direct, startling, even frightening—occurs elsewhere as well. Take, for example, “Mother’s Day,” which begins “I wring the last / sweetness // from syllables / and consume it before you,” and goes on, recycling (and reimagining) the language of the Bible:

I make sense
like a scorpion
and the sun
will be smitten.

This voice may come across as witchy or demonic, but it borrows from the vocabulary of Biblical prophesy (see Revelations 8 and 9). Here a female voice assumes the place of John the Divine’s, or perhaps even God the Father’s, recalling Jack Spicer’s dictum “Poet Be Like God” and harkening us back to the poet’s chthonic roots.

But a poem like Armantrout’s “Cold” channels a vision much closer to Macbeth than to Spicer’s work:

What does it take
to stay warm?
Fire in a cage,
gnawing on wood,
throwing sprite
after sprite
to extinction.
Each baby’s soul
is cute
in the same way.

The notion of “channeling of voices” is perhaps the key to appreciating these lyrics most fully....

Read the full piece at the Boston Review blog.

Originally Published: March 10th, 2014