Saturday, March 13, 2010

Rae Armantrout wins National Book Critics Award for Poetry

(A hearty congratulations to Rae Armantrout, winner of the National Book Critics Award for poetry  for her collection Versed .She has been writing  superbly succinct poetry and elegantly pared lyrics for decades, and it is with some satisfaction that a poet who enthralled during my years at the University of California San Diego has achieved a well earned notoriety.This is a re-publication of a review I did of  an older book of hers, Next Life .'Tis time to sing the praise of Rae.)

poems by Rae Armantrout

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 on going 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.


Where 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 cool 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 hard, acute image, half-uttered phrases that seem like mumbles, and the juxtapositions of word and deed that expose an archive of deferred emotion.


"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 small, neat house

and with a statuette
of a s table boy
on the porch,
holding a lamp up

someone was making something clear--

perhaps that motion is a real character.


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--


The very old man shuffles very slowly
not between
the white lines of a crosswalk
but down one of them.

Like a figure in a dream,
his relations to meaning
is ominous.--


These are voices of of a consciousness that surveys several things at once;time is collapsed, details are suggested, associative leaps abound, and the phrase is terse, hard. 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 the things one considers late 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 small and hardly investigated phenomenon of how all of us--as readers, writers, consumers, family members--create our own dissonances in a manner that is intractable and ingrained. This is a fine, spare , ruminative volume by a singular writer.

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