Next Life
Rae Armantrout
Wesleyan University Press, $22.95 (cloth)

Wading through the dichotomies that attend the self’s relationship with popular culture (revulsion and pull, ephemerality and endurance, etc.), Rae Armantrout’s ninth collection of poems, Next Life, is riddled with skepticism. Regarded with particular suspicion is the self’s capacity to actualize, through language, intellectual, emotional, and moral independence when material reality consistently undercuts individual hopes and desires: “As if someone might have tricked us / into believing / there was just one room // or that there were other times.” The objective here, as the book’s title implies, is to construct, by necessity, a future in which both the mistakes and the realizations of the past and present may provide a firmer position from which to confront the sordid miscellany of mediated culture, where we may “Be untraceable / but easy to replicate. // Be relative. // Be twice as far / and halfway back.” This is not to imply that Armantrout feigns any knowledge of an “answer,” or that there is anything anodyne to what her poems appear to assert; rather, it is the telling of a mind’s only recourse for solitary progress among debris. One immediately recognizes Armantrout’s formal strategies, her poetics of dilemma: the taut and chiseled, yet witty and graceful, verse paragraphs that exist in the narrow space between syntactical interiority and the openness of speech. “Long live illumined / oblongs // with this shuttling / cross-hatch” and “Everything / must go!” coexist here. The poems in Next Life are last resorts, not simply efforts to mitigate crass and stifling realities but utterances of, again, necessity, in which “the solitary one / interferes with itself” and the poet pushes, at times warily, at times confidently, toward understanding: “Come close. // The crowd is made of / little gods // and there is still / no heaven.”