Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Next Life" by Rae Armantrout

Next Life, Rae Armentrout (Wesylan).  
Rae Armantrout is a poet of intensely private language whose seeming fragments of sentences, scenes, and interior recollections still read vividly, provocatively. A member of the Language group of poets whose other members include Ron Silliman, Bob Perleman and Lynn Hejinian, among other notables, she has distinguished herself from the frequently discursive style that interrogates the boundaries between the nominal power of language and the contradictions that result when conventional meaning rubs against insoluble fact, Armantrout's poetry is brief, terser, more taciturn and pared to the essential terms and the sensations they conflate. More autobiographical, perhaps, more concerned with raising a sense of genuine autonomy from the words one employs to define direction and purpose, Armantrout's poetry is an ongoing inquiry about what lies beyond our expectations once they've been given the lie. As in this fine collection's title, what is the "Next Life"? What she leaves out is fully formed by its absence; 
We wake up to an empty room addressing itself in scare quotes. "Happen" and "now" have been smuggled out to arrive safely in the past tense. We come home to a cat made entirely of fish. --"Reversible" 

A good many poets lavish their subjects with an overflow of language that twists and turns and deliberately problematizes syntax to achieve effects that are more stunts than perception or even an interrogation of an elusive notion. Armantrout's poetry is strong, stoic, lean to the degree that what remains are the resonances of a personality witnessing the truth when internal idealism and material fact don't compliment each other. Armantrout's poetry is a calm voice intoning over the varied scraps and arcana of experience and crisply discovers, underlines, and speaks with a curt irony. There are things we've said we were, there are the things we've become, and there are the words we first used to make our declarations asserted again, though mutated, altered, given a few shades of new meaning to meet the demands of a life that becomes more complicated with small, distracting matters. There's a blunted, occasionally jagged feeling to Armantrout's lines, a cadence that will alternate between the intricate, acute image, half-uttered phrases that seem like mumbles, and the juxtapositions of word and deed that expose an archive of deferred emotion. 

 1. "That's a nice red," you said, but now the world was different so that I agreed with a puzzled or sentimental certainty as if clairvoyance could be extended to the past. And why not? With a model sailing ship in the window of a little, neat house and with a statuette of an stable boy on the porch, holding a lamp up,  someone was making something clear-- perhaps that motion is a real character. 2. How should we feel about "the eraser"? "Rampages" wears one expression while "frantically" wears another: conjoined twins, miraculously separated on Judgement Day? Then "only nothingness" is a bit vague. But words are more precise than sight-- increasingly! 3. The old man shuffles very slowly, not between a crosswalk's white lines but down one of them. Like a figure in a dream, his relations to meaning is ominous.-- --

 These are voices of a consciousness that surveys several things at once; time is collapsed, details are suggested, associative leaps abound, and the phrase is terse, problematic. Above all, this is a poetry of concentrated power; what is spoken here, the dissonance between expectation and the manner of how perception changes when idealism greets actual events and deeds, are the things one considers late at night when there's nothing on cable, you've read your books, and only a pen and paper remains; what of me remains in the interactions, the negotiations, the compromises that constitute "making my way" in the world we might inhabit? This is a city of comings and goings, of people and their associations dancing and struggling with the invisible forces of repulsion and attraction; one seeks to transcend what it is that surrounds them, but find that their autonomy is merely a fiction shared only with the self when a community is lacking to applaud or argue with one's declarations of self. Armantrout gets to that minor and hardly investigated phenomenon of how all of us--as readers, writers, consumers, family members--create our dissonances in a manner that is intractable and ingrained. This is a fine, spare, ruminative volume by a singular writer.


  1. "Half Life" is the first poem I've read by Rae Armantrout (where have I been, right?) Since reading it on this blog, I've looked up a few more of her poems and I want more!

    After at least a decade of putting my interest in poetry on the shelf, I've begun to read again and I'm discovering some wonderful stuff.

    Thanks again for the introduction to Rae Armantrout.

  2. Thanks for checking out the review. I was lucky enough to have been in a particular circle of student poets at UCSD in the Seventies when Rae had started to teach there (and where she still teaches). I hardly registered on her radar, I'm sure, but I did have the chance to see her read many times, and that's something one puts in their plus column as they tally up the good things in their life. Hope you enjoy the book.


Comments are moderated due to spam. But commentaries, opinions and other remarks about the posts are always welcome! I apologize for the inconvenience.