Up to Speed
Rae Armantrout
Wesleyan University Press, $13.95 (paper)

“Very brief musical passages quoted out of context often seem banal,” wrote Theodor Adorno. “The most stringent test is to see whether . . . smallest components make sense, and whether they can be quoted.” In Up to Speed, her eighth book of poetry, Rae Armantrout snips “smallest components” from the music of ordinary lives not so much to determine whether the original, the world, makes sense, but to test how the foreign matter of everyday America reacts when placed in the context of poetry, a medium often thought to be autonomous (or at least resistant to intrusion). Reunited with an old friend “after months apart,” Armantrout tries to reconnect by quoting (or misquoting): “I agree by mangling quotes.” Quotes have a ready-made quality, a locked-down givenness like the past itself, and in this sense Armantrout’s quoting and sampling isn’t merely an act of archivism but of endearing nostalgia, the banality of which may be—in Armantrout’s dialectical fundamentalism—the measure of our fallenness. A familiar soundtrack rendered uncanny (“Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ / . . . batted back / and forth / between speakers”) intercuts the book, interrupted by surprises: unforgettably, a “woman dressed as ‘Frank N Furter’ / from The Rocky Horror Picture Show” appears “alone on the sidewalk, 9:30 a.m., / August 24, 2002.” More somnambulist than surrealist, Armantrout’s poetry drifts half-awake (“When a dreamer sees she’s dreaming, / it causes figments to disperse”) through the automatic writing of a world dopey with the bad dream of history, where the only alternative to the oneiric is to be totally unconscious. Armantrout gives back to experience its innate incoherence. Anything but obscurity is pure wish fulfillment: “How often in dreams / I’m making my point / clear.” More than ever before, Up to Speed makes clear that Armantrout’s importance crosses over from the ghetto of poetry and into the arena of serious thinkers, serious comediennes.