The Lyric LangPo Alarm: Rae Armantrout

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Money Shot by Rae Armantrout Hardcover, $22.95 Wesleyan, 2011

Money Shot
by Rae Armantrout
Hardcover, $22.95
Wesleyan, 2011

Rae Armantrout’s poetry is informed by two key sources: first, the radical poetics of 1960s San Francisco; second, the terse verse forms of William Carlos Williams, whose poetry she first encountered in her teens. These are the guiding wires of her poetry, leaving plenty of space for her to maneuver. Armantrout’s poems place public and private languages in contact, or conflict, to reveal secondary and hidden meanings, the infiltration of economic jargon into interior vocabularies, and the failure of language to fully encapsulate our inner states. Her poetry is duplicitous in the best sense of the word: intelligent in its ability to contain opposing forces.

The effects of Armantrout’s work can be jarring or amusing, enlightening or bewildering, but rarely do they seem out of the poet’s control. Collages of self-speech and world-speech are the trademark style of her poetic canon. Often in her poetry a more immediately accessible lyric element — a dream, memory, bit of speech, or a situation — is contrasted with a scrap of found language: officialese, conversation, or mass media. Consider, for instance, the title poem of her new collection, “Money Shot”:

1
IndyMac:
Able to exploit pre-
existing.

Tain.
Per. In. Con.
Cyst.

2
I’m on a crowded ship
and I’ve been served the wrong breakfast.

This small mound
of soggy dough
is not what I ordered.

“Why don’t you just say
what you mean?”

Why don’t I?

A dark humor underwrites the poem and props up the insight: though people mandated financial reform and economic stability, they did not order that tax-payers purchase the “soggy dough” of failed companies. “Why don’t I?” is answered silently, “Cui bono?” Perhaps, the poem suggests, if we could articulate our desires, then we would not be left with such rotten inconsistencies. Breaking down and dissembling “pertain” and “inconsistencies” is not the most nuanced of techniques, and the poem’s insights are only distantly related — “elliptical,” as Stephen Burt termed them. As in many of the poems in Money Shot, there is a simplistic (techniques) difficulty (grammar / connections) here that one is likely to find either engaging or off-putting.

In an interview on PBS’s ArtsBeat, Armantrout describes her most common poetic structure to host Jeffrey Brown: “Many of my poems — not all of them — but many of them are written in separate sections that are divided perhaps by numbers or perhaps by asterisks, and they are separate moments or separate thoughts that are juxtaposed, and I’m interested in the juxtapositions and the kind of friction that bringing in material from diverse situations or disparate realms can create.”

There is not much prolonged argument in Armantrout, only suggestions of insight that the reader is left to realize: implications by juxtaposition. Those who read poems and wish to paraphrase their contents easily, who desire simple one-to-one lines of logic, will find much of frustration. Armantrout remains faithful to Williams’ dictum, “The poet thinks with his poem. In that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity.” The poems are not inaccessible, however — though they could be; in lesser hands, they would likely be opaque. But Armantrout’s deft touch allows disparate elements to cohere; or, not “cohere” exactly, but to create a space where insight foments, as in the poem “Prayers”:

1
We pray
and the resurrection happens.

Here are the young
again,

sniping and giggling,

tingly
as ringing phones.

2
All we ask
as that our thinking

sustain momentum,
identify targets.

The pressure
in my lower back
rising to be recognized
as pain.

The blue triangles
on the rug
repeating.

Coming up,
a discussion
on the uses
of torture.

The fear
that all this
will end.

The fear
that it won’t.

Like a kind of rorschach test, the reader is invited to suggest circumstance, context. This could be a prayer for the end of an academic conference (one can almost hear, “Ugh, this is torture!”). Or, it could be a poem that insinuates connection through the word prayer, through the varieties of forms it takes in action, from religious devotion to child-rearing, from physical discomfort to dueling views on torture: one from without, one from within. On first glance, asserting a mundane situation, the poem is relatively banal, even melodramatic. With some inspection, the variety of readings open.

Armantrout has been widely praised for this aspect of her poetry, and it is certainly to be applauded. The multiplicity of readings within the majority of her work challenges readers to thinking critically about language, meaning, and circumstance. But the collages for which Armantrout is best known don’t encapsulate the extent of her range. Several poems in Money Shot defy the Armantrout stereotype, such as “Day,” her response to “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“Off the brown brink.”

Over smog colored
embankments,

the same split
wings
aflutter,

the exhaustive, glancing
perusal.

It flashes
but doesn’t gather.

It rhymes and does not
confirm.

It is almost shocking to find Armantrout in conversation with this devotional lyric. Hopkins’ poem affirms that “nature is never spent,” that God’s grandeur “gathers to greatness” despite the fact that “all is smeared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil.” Armantrout sees, however, a world of wry hopelessness, that “flashes / but doesn’t gather,” whose “bright wings” of Hopkins are instead “split . . . aflutter.” The final lines of Armantrout’s response uncover the consolation we take in art even when it does not “confirm” any truth.

“Day” also illustrates Armantrout’s often-overlooked lyric flourish, her well-tuned ear that is able to punctuate the otherwise prosaic verse with music at surprising moments, such as the last stanzas of “Objection”:

Unite my heart,
beaten small

in the secret place
of thunder.

At times that lyric sense takes over completely, and one is met with a poem that presents itself without the much-ballyhooed collage or deconstruction. These are more rare, and confronting them among so many collage poems forces one to second-guess their relatively simple approach. It might be her intended effect. “With,” for example, is a sonically elegant, melancholy ars poetica (of sorts):

It’s well
that things should stir
inconsequentially
around me
like this
patina of shadow,
flicker, whisper,
so that
I can be still.

*

I write things down
to show others
later
or to show myself
that I am not alone with
my experience.

*

“With”
is the word that
comes to mind,
but it’s not
the right word here.

The poem revises itself as it moves forward and questions the inadequacy of language, but we are not faced with the more typical tropes of her work, such as text from several media in phases of voices. Another surprising passage in Money Shot is the second section of “Human”:

The rhythmic wince
of the artificial candles
on a dark morning
calls attention

as if calling

outside
a child yells “Mom-my!”
again and again.

Hopeless persistence
is called petulance

so that it is possible
to refer

to the petulance
of the lost

Armantrout’s poems will continue to bedevil a great many readers. They double back and look in two directions at once too often for most people to ever feel comfortable — but, then again, she is not a poet of comfort. She does not offer simplicity. Armantrout reminds us of the complexity of language and the danger of malaise. “There are two kinds of choices,” she writes, “unconscious / and desperate.” Money Shot is another attempt at a wake-up call.

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About Daniel Pritchard

Daniel Evans Pritchard is the founding editor of The Critical Flame. His poetry, translations, and criticism can also be found at Harvard Review online, Slush Pile Magazine, Drunken Boat, Prodigal, Little Star, Rain Taxi, The Battersea Review, The Quarterly Conversation, The Buenos Aires Review, and elsewhere.