Rae Armantrout's probing new collection

PoetryUniversity of ChicagoBilly CollinsJohn AshberyPulitzer Prize AwardsWesleyan University

The only time I met the poet Rae Armantrout, a few years ago, I escorted her from her hotel to the lecture hall at the University of Chicago where she was to read. We chatted, and she mentioned that she had a new book coming out. I asked her what it was called. “‘Money Shot,'” said this smallish, birdlike woman in her early 60s. The incongruity of hearing such a phrase issue from such a mouth (Google it if you don't know what it means; this is a family paper) strikes me now as an apt metaphor for Armantrout's career and work. 

Long associated with perennial band-of-outsiders the Language poets, Armantrout has in recent years got her star on. Poems in The New Yorker and Poetry; the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award (for 2009's "Versed"): The gatekeepers of what Charles Bernstein derides as "official verse culture" have crowned Armantrout No. 1 with a bullet. She's about as avant-garde as the Grammys.


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And good for her. Armantrout's gnomic lyrics are temperamentally at odds with the pseudo-populist porridge of Billy Collins and Mary Oliver, the treacly earnestness of Franz Wright and Rita Dove. "Versed" was written in the wake of a personal crisis, "Money Shot" (2011) in the wake of the financial meltdown (the title is, of course, a double or triple entendre).

But whatever her themes, Armantrout is on the lookout for the live-wire of the moment, the chatter of the now. She overhears, she jots, she scans.

"Language exists / to pull things / close," she notes, but it also estranges — "pull things close" is an idiom worth parsing. Clear Channel and campfire stars, joysticks and hibiscus, "interglacial / moraines" and "zero wiggle room," Russian icons and X-Men: "Just Saying," her latest book, is a dialectical flea dip.

Like Helen Levitt and William Carlos Williams, Armantrout isolates everyday particulars and steps back, withdrawing the struts of symbolism and commentary:

Next to the thoroughfare,

 

between the shopping plaza

and the medical complex,

 

a man in a straw hat

leans

on a pink

pasteboard sign

 

with one

woman's shoe on it

 

and the word "Repair"

This transplants the syntax-as-mysterium-tremendum sensibility of Williams' "Between Walls" to contemporary litter. Armantrout notices "the black wall / of the Hyundai building," a "sign in the airport," a "throng of extras," "a large ceramic frog / in jodhpurs," an

Old-time

Looney Tunes

heart-shaped

tin

 

on which

Tweety Bird,

beak agape,

eyes bulging,

 

holds a

Valentine's Day

card against

his own thin

 

breast.

She wrings enchantment from familiar consumerist flapdoodle, "the Brad and Angies":

In the 21st century,

America's soft core's

undead.

 

*

On how many bookstore shelves,

lovely, fanged teenagers,

red-eyed, smeared with blood.

In Armantrout's interpretation of dreams, the paranormal teenage fantasy sections of the nation's walking-dead bookstores — soft-core porn for a zombie economy — hawk the manifest content of American nightmare, disguising a rottenness at the core.

Throughout her recent books, Armantrout has refined and advanced the elliptical verse of lyrical fragments that is Language poetry's ironic legacy (Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian and Michael Palmer are Armantrout's fellow travelers in this respect). The claims made on Language poetry's behalf — that its operations unmask the ideological functions of language by exposing the illusions of referentiality and the speaking subject ("The government controls us / through grammar," she says here, I think archly) — are often carried over and applied to the post-Language lyric. I've never found these claims very convincing. For one thing, they underestimate the complexities of semantics and selfhood. The speaker in Armantrout's poems seems quite stable to me: She is someone who is genially interested in how language works, who likes to artfully arrange the bits of speech we leave lying around on billboards and best-seller lists, in palaver and chitchat, on subways and televisions, in laboratories and over beers.

Like John Ashbery, Susan Wheeler and Frederick Seidel, Armantrout appropriates and redirects our viral sayings. Idiom, dialect, colloquialism, slang, cliché and platitude provide some of the most colorfully fletched arrows in contemporary poetry's quiver.

Armantrout's very book titles — "Up to Speed" (2004), "Money Shot," "Just Saying" — invite the reader to bear down on phrases that usually fly below radar, to think about the structure and nuance of metaphor.

What does it mean to "just say" something? What is a "just saying," as opposed to, for instance, an unjust one? "We're all saying the same thing now," Armantrout says. A few pages later: "Be specific." But of course that's one of those "same things" we all say. If language is fossilized poetry, poetry is a paleontologist.

Armantrout's fascination with idiom leads her often to the language of politics and science — systems of experiment and discovery, revision and control, falsification and hierarchy, like poetry, like language itself. She's been interested in the weird lexicon of string theory and quantum mechanics for some time — subatomic particles are in "a permanent tizzy" — and the empty slogans of the so-called war on terror reverberate throughout her dispatches. Here the uncertainties of political and physical reality, the shifting sands of descriptive jargon, are "like thought," which "creates the ground / it covers." "See something, say something," a poem begins. It's Armantrout's credo, her ars poetica. Everything she sees becomes a poem — a suspicious package.

Michael Robbins is the author of "Alien vs. Predator."

"Just Saying"

By Rae Armantrout, Wesleyan University, 101 pages, $22.95

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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PoetryUniversity of ChicagoBilly CollinsJohn AshberyPulitzer Prize AwardsWesleyan University
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