Rae Armantrout Next Life (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2007)
For many years now—and I am sure this is not an original perception—I have seen the poet Rae Armantrout as a kind of American haiku writer, a writer working in small units of seemingly unrelated fragments placed on the page or pages next to one another, fragments which suddenly flower into new meanings in their apposition to and their relationships with one another upon the page.
One might describe this work as a kind of collage of daily events and observations, except that in Armantrout’s poetry the fragments are left unlinked, disconnected in space—not woven together as a single whole as I might have attempted in my own poetry. Her lines, like Williams’ fragments of cut glass, each glitter in the bright sun of her intelligence, to be connected only in a reader’s mind—an equally intelligent reader her work calls out for and generously rewards. In Armantrout’s writing, accordingly, each line magically transforms the next, the many small units that make up a poem functioning like the luminous string of light held between the hands of the medium pictured on the cover of her new book, Next Life—a medium (named Eva C.) who, incidentally, bares a startling resemblance to the poet herself!
Next Life, in part, is a book of just such relationships, of the relationships of things in space and people to each other. The first poem of the book, “Tease,” for example, teases us about the other selves each of us imagine for our lives.
For lack of which
we put ourselves
in a cop’s place
as he puts himself
inside the head
of a serial killer rapist
who appears to be
teasing the police.
In the second unit of this poem, we quickly recognize that Armantrout will go much farther than the first series suggests in reimaging our roles in life; for the next section of the poem suddenly moves to the natural world, reconceiving relationships not through a psychological “tease,” if you will, but through a kind of spiritual interconnection of things in space:”bare tree” to “human skeleton,” as “the holy spirit / likens objects,” things geometrically linked in space, “provisional pairs.” The next set of actions seem to “make sense,” contrarily, in their singularity, in their one time occurrence in a life filled with such events as opposed to the death offered up by the imagined “serial killer rapist” of the first series: turning a corner in a black sedan, quick-stepping up a street in a knit red cap,” things so fragilely meaningless that they occur “one time only,” and in that fragility, as nearly forgotten moments of life itself, demand to be written down like “everything that passes.” The last short unit of this beautiful lament on time and events past, turns the poem on its head, asking the reader to move forward, relating the “Red cap” to whatever may come to mind:
Red cap is to
one time only
To my way of thinking, a “Red Cap” is a baggage handler who helps relay ones bags to the train or taxi that takes one away on some unknown voyage and returns one home—to a new experience in life? death?
Much of the rest of Next Life ponders such interconnections, and subtly—without demanding sympathy or pity—explores a dark world of possible death. The poem “Two, Three” investigates relationships that explain, in part, some of our metaphysical conceptions. “How many traits / must a thing have / in order to be singular?” wonders the poet.
(Echo persuades us
everything we say
has been said at least once
In the following stanza “Two plump, bald men,” dressed somewhat alike (a gay couple one presumes) walk a bulldog, which even as she perceives these three in space are being watched by “an invisible third person.” So she explains was “The Trinity” born, out of the “bitter / symbiosis of couples,” the dog serving, in this case as a sort of holy child. Perhaps if we can synchronize our speech, our attempts at communication, she suggests, we can reduce echo’s sadness; the couple can become a single, unified voice. But once again, the last stanza of this poem turns that very question on its head, as if the author were exploring her concerns from a completely different angle:
Is it the beginning or end
of real love
when we pity a person
because, in him,
we see ourselves.
Indeed, such pity is likely the end of “real” love, for the synchronization of voices destroys echo’s din, the din by which we comprehend that we are not a singular thing, not a “sad, fat boy in pirate hat.” When we see the other person as ourselves, the world is drained of all beauty—the need to seek The Trinity abolished. We are left like that “sad, fat boy,” beside a broken vehicle of communication, a “Long, old, dented, / copper-colored Ford,” now a useless thing in space.
Armantrout, in this sense of turning language on its head, is a true wit. And throughout her work she further explores language through complex puns. “Thing,” another poem that relates humans to the beings and objects with which they surround themselves, beautifully demonstrates this kind of wit.
We love our cat
for her self
regard is assiduous
for she sits in the small
patch of sun on our rug
and licks her claws
from all angles
and it is far
to “balanced reporting”
though, of course,
it is also
the very same thing.
Like Williams’s several brilliant observations of his feline pet, here Armantrout expresses the simple (“assiduous,” “bland”) joys of watching another being, a cat slowly licking its claws one by one, a show much more interesting than the nightly news—so desperate to balance its reporting that it demonstrates no point of view, washing over what might be described as “real” events. Clearly, the cat, in its “balance” of various angles, is far more fun and, perhaps, more informative to watch!
Armantrout’s poems nearly always enact what she describes as “The present’s chronic / revision,” the moment to moment shift of reality. Her various stanzas and what I have described as “series,” often set off by small, graphic stars in space, each pull at one another, transforming perspective and meaning. One of the final poems in this new volume, “Propensity,” reveals just how effective such a “chronic revision” can be.
Once again, the poem begins with an exploration of the self in relation to others, the idea that all beings are “eternal and identical” except for “its wobble,” and “its exact propensity / for being elsewhere.” In short, Armantrout immediately punctures a hole in the idea of synchronicity, for the wobble and “the propensity” for being “elsewhere” is what Derrida might have said is “la difference“; for it is precisely that wobble and elsewhereness that separates each being from all others, that and each of our perturbations, our desires to express ourselves “first” or “best,” as she suggests in the next series of lines.
That desire or “wish” to be elsewhere, she argues in the next stanza, is also an impatience with time, a desire “for time to pass,” for any action, any movement in space, demands the flow and flux of time itself; the wish to be “elsewhere” and the concept of time accordingly, are one and the same: a profound philosophical insight Armantrout expresses quite lucidly yet simply. This conflating of time and desire strangely enmeshes us, however, interconnects us somehow with our fellow human beings in their “wobbles,” each from our millions of different perspectives, a concept she stunningly presents through the image of the last stanza of this poem:
Having enveloped a utility pole,
the morning glory gapes
in all directions.
Despite our seemingly universal desire each to be elsewhere, we are linked in our singular views of life.
Such a poetry is not without its momentary stumbles or temporary pretensions: as Armantrout writes in Make It New, “Each poem says, ‘I’m desperate’ / then, ‘Everything / must go!'” And in this sense, the poet allows herself very little safe ground, each work demanding a new set of interrelationships and interconnections. It is perhaps Armantrout’s utter honesty that saves her risk-taking tightrope walk of language from appearing as mere showmanship. One has the sense in Next Life, as in nearly all her books, of a stolid Western woman, ready at the start of each new poem to pound out a new frontier—with the reader’s help—that will create a momentary settlement, a temporary truce between the world and the self that inevitably results in a new way of perceiving her adventurous tale/trail.
Forio, Ischia, July 6, 2007
Reprinted from Shadowtrain, no. 18 (August 2007)