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Stephen Cope reviews

A Wild Salience: The Writing of Rae Armantrout

Ed. Tom Beckett with Bobbie West and Robert Drake
Burning Press. Cleveland, OH

[T]o be immersed in work, embedded (often quite literally) in the network of elective affinities and antipathies of a small handful of other persons who are immersed in their work as well, to be held together collectively in the unity of ‘what you do and what you are’ — who could experience the loss of such conditions as anything but ‘unlucky’? [ . . . ] The arc is as irreversible as the event is unrepeatable. There is no having back the work that came out of nowhere and landed itself and its maker somewhere.

Evans, Steve. ‘The Dynamics of Literary Change:
Four Excursuses in Lieu of a Lecture.
The Impercipient Lecture Series. Vol. 1, No. 1. February 1997

I OPEN WITH this statement of Steve Evans’s, quoting from composer Morton Feldman, not so much to sound a note of warning here (as if any such history that this somewhere implies might ever be avoided!), but simply to state that the apparatus of criticism — as one of the ushers into this curious place that is not the artist’s own — need not pose quite the threat that it sometimes seems to. Evans, for his part, is speaking simply of publication: the moment in which a work — or, in which work itself — is made available to a public beyond the arm’s length stretch of ‘elective affinities.’ And his account is right, as it is perhaps a strange somewhere that awaits the publishing writer, or the writer who is worthy, in anyone’s eyes, of more attention than she has received, and who thus becomes the subject of a volume of critical essays.

In this case, lucky for all of us, the writer is worthy indeed. Rae Armantrout is the author of seven published books: Extremities (1978), The Invention of Hunger (1979), Precedence (1985), Necromance (1991), Made to Seem (1995), Writing the Plot About Sets (1998), True (a memoir, 1998) — and two forthcoming works, The Pretext and Veil: New and Selected Poems. Her writing has long been admired by members of the small (but serious) cult that is the American poetry world, and her accomplishments, to repeat a minor cliché that is in this case appropriate, are overshadowed only by the relative lack, until now, of an adequate response in print. Lucky for us, the response is in this case not an unfriendly one, and opens what one might hope will be a sustained and further mapping of this aptly peculiar place where she has gone and taken us with her.

Photo of Rae Armantrout

I might note also, though, that innocence itself — and its delightfully tragic opposite — are appropriate here as well, as one thing this volume does is it introduces, or further expands upon (depending on one’s familiarity with Armantrout’s work) a central trope in her writing: that of the proverbial Garden, with all its discontents. In an interview with Lyn Hejinian (an interview that opens the book, and thus might serve more or less as the introduction that the volume otherwise lacks): ‘I’m not so much obsessed with the existence of God as with the existence of existence,’ Armantrout says. She continues:

So I’m still fascinated by questions of origin. I find that the Bible stories are great if you think of them as posing the problems, not giving the answers, the way the Garden of Eden story is about the problem of consciousness. That story has tremendous staying power and it’s come into my poems several times . . . 

And, it comes into these readings of her poems also, one of several nodes to which the writers in this collection, in various ways, respond. Brenda Hillman, for instance, pits the Homeric sirens against the call of a garden poppy, taking the title poem of Armantrout’s collection Necromance (‘Poppy under a young/ pepper tree, she thinks./ The Siren always sings/ like this. Morbid/ glamour of the singular . . . ’) as a springboard for a meditation, in thirty or so short, almost aphoristic passages, on Armantrout’s work and its sources (or resources) in Biblical and literary myth. So too Fanny Howe, who touches on the garden as a means to explore Armantrout’s writing’s embeddedness in the San Diego landscape — cultural, natural, both at once — in which the latter was raised and where both currently live:

When a landscape doesn’t conform to your idea of the nature of the universe, it might as well be hell. And when it does, it can become a hidden but expanding metaphor in your life — again hell but also equivalent to God, Mother, or Mustard Seed. That is, it has no relativity factor. In her work Rae Armantrout is not only referring to a specific part of the world — San Diego; she has absorbed it; and its wilderness, gardened, is justified by her genius.

Justified and transformed (insofar as justification is, in fact, a transformation). The point being that Armantrout’s poetry does not merely withstand the multiple takes offered here, it willfully invites them, arriving, as Ron Silliman notes in his essay, at ‘that moment when, during any experience that is new and undigested, details flood in, awaiting the gestalt organization of data into something recognized and subject to being categorized . . . ’

The latter is the critical task, perhaps, although it bears pointing out that this volume includes fewer examples of such  maintenance than most, offering instead a good number of responses that explore the poetry’s resonance on its own terms: Hillman’s and Howe’s are two examples thereof, as are Susan Wheeler’s ‘Gravity No Stretch For The Zip Wit of Rae,’ Lydia Davis’s ‘Why Stop with a Barnacle?’ (‘there is no such thing as glibness about [Armantrout],’ Davis writes, ‘Glibness is a town thousands of miles away from San Diego’), or David Bromige’s compellingly flirtatious account of Made of Seem:

In the excitement phase we think we want . . .  touch. This is the . . .  dangerous moment.
Slap-happy fronds.
The tip of your tongue.
The man slapped her bottom like a man did in a video.
The woman at the next table says ‘You smell pretty’ and sends her small daughter’s laugh, a spluttery orgasm, into my ear

A list of citations from the book, one that goes on for another two dozen or so lines, framed by Bromige’s own incalculable wit: ‘I would like to write a few elegant sentences on Rae Armantrout’s poetry,’ Bromige concludes, ‘I admire it tremendously, I love it, I find her to be among the finest writers — the finest? — of the short lyric poem in English today. Except that of course it is the anti-lyric.’ Add to this Charles Alexander’s impressionistic ‘Vibrating Curves: Reading Through a Few S-Poems of Rae Armantrout,’ and short essays by Laura Moriarty, Aldon L. Nielsen, Rachel Blau DuPlessis (almost an improvisation more than an essay), Jessica Grim, Kit Robinson, and Robert Creeley, and add, again, the actual poems included in ‘Return Ticket,’ a reprint of a chapbook consisting of poems by ten poets written for Armantrout upon her departure form the Bay Area, and add, one more time, ex-student and volume co-editor Bobbie West’s collage of Armantrout’s poems and comments on her work: one gets a clear sense of the multiple ‘somewheres’ to which she has introduced us — both the community and the continuum in which, through which, and to which Armantrout has contributed over the years.

Yet there are more properly ‘critical’ pieces as well. Ann Vickery, for example, discusses Armantrout’s work alongside that of Fanny Howe’s, framing both in terms of Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, while Bob Perelman offers a curious reading of Armantrout in terms of the trope of anorexia. (It is a strange critique, and perhaps more telling ultimately than this occasion could allow.) Give Perelman credit for at least suggesting, if not articulating fully, the grounds for use of the term in High Modernism, where it refers to the pared down work of ‘self-mastery’ found in Niedecker and H.D. as against the ‘hysterico-phallo-fascism’ of Pound. And give him credit also for his clearly ostentatious suggestion that Armantrout’s work ‘is closer to [Diane] Ackerman’s than to [fellow ‘language’ poet Charles] Bernstein’s — ‘ an assertion that is meant not to discredit Armantrout, but, far from it, to give Armantrout props for her unique accomplishment (as opposed to Ackerman’s abomination) in the mode of ‘anorexic’ Imagism, an anorexia that Perelman suggests, a bit obliquely perhaps, Armantrout’s work overcomes. ‘[B]ecoming a social being does not entail possession of one’s perceptions of the world,’ Perelman writes apropos Armantrout’s poem ‘Disown,’ ‘Amnesia, repression, alienation are constant results. Writing for Armantrout is to strike, precisely, into this vagueness.’ (I take it that such striking out remains distinct from either literary ‘self-mastery’ or its metaphorical manifestation as poetic anorexia . . . )

Ron Silliman, nonetheless, adds a differently sober calculation of Armantrout’s work, focussing on her use of seriality and the poetic series — or, to avoid the confusion of terms, simply writing in segments. As others have done before him, Silliman notes the Objectivist tendencies in Armantrout’s writing, but unlike others, he notes also that simply noting it does not tell the whole story. On her work’s relationship, for example, to that of George Oppen (a relationship that was the subject of an excellent essay by Jeffrey Peterson in Sagetrieb a few years back)*, Silliman cautions against accepting too easy an identification between the two: ‘[S]equencing serves Armantrout differently than it does someone like Oppen, even if, as was also true for Oppen, the use of segments is a way for a writer whose instinct is for the short form to build up a larger text.’

* Peterson, Jeffrey. ‘The Siren Song of the Singular: Armantrout, Oppen, and the Ethics of Representation.’ Sagetrieb. Vol. 12, No. 3. Winter 1993.

‘Oppen,’ Silliman continues:

states his themes clearly either in his titles or at the beginning of poems. Armantrout is almost always indirect. For Oppen, the poem itself is an elaboration or demonstration and segmentation in his work is at least as much about balance and pacing as it is a mechanism to shift scene and discourse. For Armantrout, the structure is almost always in the opposite direction — we have to actually read the poem in order to gain some sense of what it may be ‘about.’

Similarly, Hank Lazer, in ‘The Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout:’ ‘Rae’s ways of swerving often mark disconcerting shifts in direction ‘about,’ a significant but not self-glorifying turn, not exactly one perception leading directly to another but one perception placing one somewhat askew in relation to the next, so that one becomes aware of being both engaged (perhaps, “alerted”) and a bit decentered . . . ’

And, indeed, it is significance without self-glorification: both the writing here, and the wonderfully swerving, decentering, segmented, justified, transformative, and ingenious writing that is Armantrout’s. It speaks volumes, as does this particular instance of its acknowledgement, a volume that is a needed celebration of a poet who has long deserved it — even were modesty (formal in her work, but also human, if I may use the term) would seem otherwise to have precluded it. ‘Not the city light,’ Armantrout writes in ‘View:’

     We want
— the moon —

              The Moon
none of our own doing!

But then again, we want to eat the cake too, and the writings here gathered respond to a brilliant body of work (still growing) that is, in matter of fact, very much her doing. And for her having done it, A Wild Salience suggests, we should be thankful.

And I, for one, very heartily agree.

You can read four poems by Rae Armantrout
in this issue of Jacket.

Photo of Rae Armantrout from the back cover of A Wild Salience

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