Rae Armantrout, Money Shot, Wesleyan, $22.95 (cloth)
Rae Armantrout’s last book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Versed, contained a number of poems that obliquely documented a personal crisis: the poet’s encounter with life-threatening illness.
Its successor, by contrast, was written in the context of a collective crisis: the financial crash of 2008–2009. Its title, Money Shot, suggests a mingling of two kinds of thrill seeking, the reckless corporate gambling that has cost us all so dearly and the monetized desire that oils the wheels of the porn industry. Reading Money Shot, it is difficult, then, not to scrutinize the poems for symptoms and diagnoses of the economic and political mess we’re in. Might we say that Money Shot does for the public crisis what Versed did for the private one?
Yes. But it would be wrong to infer that Armantrout has somehow in late career become a writer of Big Themes, possessed of a specifically poetic wisdom that can help us, as the jacket copy suggests, “understand the world in the wake of the Great Recession.” This would both diminish her earlier work, which pays special attention to how the forms of communication are shifting, and neglect its continuities with what has recently brought her broader acclaim. Armantrout’s writing cloaks itself in skepticism, offering not understanding so much as a restless, probing attention to the relationship between linguistic usage and forms of power. Her work has often been attuned to the language of media, and what interests her in Money Shot is how the fragile fences between private and public selves, the private body and the body politic, are increasingly eroded by our online “presence.” The book’s title is perhaps best taken as a reference to a state of unsatisfying communicative arousal. Release from this predicament is always deferred: Money Shot’s hesitant, witty, self-qualifying examination of contemporary speech is anticlimactic in the best possible ways.
One of the book’s strongest themes, accordingly, is virtuality, a poetic encounter with the data flows that organize our cultural and economic being. The virtual appears both in the depiction of immateriality as an aspect of technological development and in the knowing use of an older metaphysical language, as we find in “The Hang”:
Frames should be viewed
in the clouds.
Armantrout has approached the lyric poem in this way since the late 1970s, quizzically sieving contemporary linguistic experience into short, short-lined, and segmented poems. Money Shot is likewise full of hazy silences, borderlands, airy spaces, the intangible, and the inaudible, a vanishing into “this / patina of shadow, / flicker, whisper,” as she puts it in “With.” The metaphysical strand discernible in other of Armantrout’s books is more evident here, though religious vocabularies are as vulnerable as anything else to comic puncturing: “For I so loved the world // that I set up / my only son // to be arrested.”
In this way Money Shot is not so much about materialism, understood as a technologized confluence of greed and lust, as about the agitated linguistic traffic between material and virtual, immaterial registers within our culture. An example might be “Duration,” a poem of Dickinsonian domestic reverie, which reads in its entirety:
of small pecks
my mother called
leaky faucet kisses.
Late sun winks
from a power line
beyond the neighbor’s tree.
the daylong day.
on the air,
still on the air,
The poem contains an epiphanic light effect, a reference to the coming afterlife, and birdsong with a message for the mortal poet-scribe. Of course, it also undercuts all such freight from the literary past. The blackbirds are not available in the here and now; they’re in heaven. And heaven is a hell of eternal return, torture by unrelenting, needling birdsong. The allusion to John Cage’s maxim on boredom (“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four,” etc.), which underpinned many durational artworks of the 1960s and ’70s, is clear. The twittering (or Twittering) birds are endlessly “on the air, / still on the air,” a vision, perhaps, of a culture glutted on its own self-representations. The heaven is our heaven, and, yes, it is boring, as the tautological “daylong day” suggests.
For Rae Armantrout, the apparent dynamism of our chattering culture amounts to numb immobility.
The apparent dynamism of our chattering culture collapses, in this view, into numb immobility. Armantrout also addresses this motif of stasis in “Homer,” another poem that figures a hellish eternal return, one in which good and evil are discussed in terms of an opposition between forward movement and the continuous present:
If the good is momentum,
putting all this
evil is the whirlpool,
the amplified local.
If good is the all-enduring
that carries you
to the future,
evil is the present’s
Armantrout is adept at compressed forms of definition such as “evil isÂ .Â .Â .” or “good is . . .” Yet such statements always turn in on themselves. How are we to understand these remarks on mobility and stasis in the context of the forward-moving trajectory of a poem, which is always encountered in the time-bound experience of reading? Is that momentum good too? The poem must go on, and every statement is subject to immediate revision. A devil figure (“Wily one”) enters the poem in disguise, but the closing words leave the reader undecided as to whether the devil-messiah is desired or not: “‘If only he would come again / as he once was,’ / they say.” The point seems to be that neither the stasis of self-identity nor the ruse of disguise will do. Odyssey or not, neither poem nor poet can easily be at home with themselves. Neither the (good) “smooth passage” nor the (evil) “present’s animal magnetism” is affirmed in these works. And, as ever with Armantrout’s prickly short lines, the repeated stab of the line break is never more than a few syllables away, lending a flickering stutter to the progress of the sentences. Nothing uttered this way can be straightforward.
That recursive sentiment, captured by those who sigh, “If only he would come again,” is visible in many places throughout the book. This is where Money Shot’s complicated response to the giddy, self-gratifying forward thrust of the language of technological progress and instant profit is most clearly felt. Poem after poem gets caught in a self-scrutiny that seems to foreclose any possibility of forward “passage.” “Everything I know / is something I’ve repeated,” mourns the book’s strangely enervated last poem. “Monks / mimed one another’s / squiggles // carefully / by candlelight // as if they thought / creation trailed something,” reads a passage from “The Vesicle.” In “The Air,” an Internet meme is subject to torture, or the short-circuiting of digital chatter that might pass for torture to a meme, as we are told: “Give it a split-screen. // Make it ask itself / the wrong question. // Make it eat questions / and grow long.”
These issues of self-scrutiny and temporal flow converge in “Human,” a poem that, like “The Vesicle” and several others in the volume, is built on Armantrout’s characteristic blend of science (particle physics, in this case) and the defamiliarization of the everyday. The poem compares a subatomic particle to a wave; both, the poem tells us, will turn back on themselves under certain conditions. “Does this mean / the world is human?” the poem asks. In a poem that ponders how we can be aware of ourselves, it turns out that our knowledge of physics doesn’t help much. The next-best route follows consciousness as it happens in time and arrives at the conclusion that what is contemplated must always be in the past, a sense already suggested early in the book: “The time travel paradox: / each passing thought / is the thinker.” The gap between the present as it happens and the present as it appears in contemplation, a lapse that is both temporal and cognitive, produces a differential friction that drives many of Armantrout’s poems. Such self-awareness is the basis of a lyric irony that continually, and often bitingly, bubbles up in these poems, as in the closing gesture of “Autobiography: Urn Burial”: “In the moment of experience, / one may drown / while another looks on.”
These moments of self-scrutiny establish the book’s strongest mood, which amounts to a refusal of the culture of the quick payoff that the book’s title gestures at. If recognition of oneself in a reflection proves agonizingly elusive, and the sameness in repetition is difficult to discern, then at least that uncomfortable non-identity can be the motor of some sort of renovating alertness. Hank Lazer wrote more than a decade ago of the way the ‘“mysticism of the particular” in Armantrout was always undercut by a lyrical “swerve.” In Money Shot, the swerve remains crucial: the glitch in the “smooth passage” of the poem, the hiccup of the line break, the kickback of irony, the suggestive lacunae that arise from a compulsively laconic style. In these poems questions short-circuit themselves as soon as they are asked. The inquisitive, self-aware consciousness that propels the writing communicates a way of being in the world that refuses to give up and go with the linguistic flow.