We inherit from antiquity the image of the poet as bard and storyteller—one who who sings, or sang, the narratives of the tribe, preserving the collective memory of her or his people. This is the kind of poet most literature textbooks like to open with—as if all poets emerged out of one blind man’s mouth. But there were other kinds of poets as well: those who chanted, cast spells, shrieked or whispered nonsense or fragments of words or images, making magic come into being through language. There were poets of eros (think Sappho) and poets who helped with their keening to bury the dead (think wailing songs). The western tradition, although it seems to have favored the first, bardic kind, does give us a glimpse of the other: the witches’ songs in Macbeth, Christopher Smart, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, Paul Celan, and the list goes on.
Personally, I’m not in favor of keeping poets separate according to their “kind.” I prefer to think of poetic textures, temperaments, and tonalities as growing organically, intermingling and feeding on each other. The poets I most admire are those who draw from all quarters and brew a strange, peculiar music. So I’m particularly excited when I open a book by a poet seemingly “defined” by critics and find a completely different and unexpected side to their work. Rae Armantrout’s Just Saying provided just such a discovery for me. One of the founding mothers of Language poetry, Armantrout has been long been considered, and justly, a genre-bending and provocative writer of what might be called the postmodernist worldview. All true. And yet, if you open Just Saying to any random page, you might be surprised by what you find there—and who it recalls. Consider the following poem:
AnotherBrittle ovals,pinkish grayand thin,hang in shoalstreading currents.*Eucalyptus,let us in.
It just so happened I had been reading Eugenio Montale in Geoffrey Brock’s wonderful FSG Book of Twentieth Century Italian Poetry when I first encountered this poem, and I was immediately struck by the affinity between Armantrout’s and Montale’s work, and that of several other mid-century Italian poets—the tender attentiveness to sounds, the elusive tonalities, the scraps of a song that are somehow made whole. Like Montale’s, Armantrout’s syntax
flickerswith some delicacyof feeling,some hesitancy—and then persists.
Of course, any longtime readers of Armantrout’s poetry could also point to Larry Eigner, Lorine Niedecker or William Carlos Williams as kindred spirits, and indeed they would be right. This is, perhaps, the moment when one realizes one is dealing with a complex, important poet—one who can be classical and innovative at the same time, often in the same line. Just Saying is filled with poems like this. Moreover, Armantrout’s poetry can be said to represent equally well both the tradition of poet as bardic spokesperson/archivist and that of poet as spell-casting witch, no matter how her critics would like to pigeonhole her. While her idiom and topical interests are emphatically those of her own place and time, meaning ours—USA, 2014, a moment of ironic, fragmentary perception, skepticism and media saturation—her spellwork is apparent on any page of this book, lurking in a “long vowel’s / vanishing circumference.”
What sort of witchery am I talking about? Take the book’s first poem, “Scripture,” which asks us to
Consider the hummingbirds,how they’re gussied upand monomaniacalas the worst (or best)of you.Consider the bright,streamlined emergencythey manifest.
The voice here is direct, and takes no prisoners (“monomaniacal / as worst (or best of) / you”), enjoining and insulting the reader at once. This form of address—direct, startling, even frightening—occurs elsewhere as well. Take, for example, “Mother’s Day,” which begins “I wring the last / sweetness // from syllables / and consume it before you,” and goes on, recycling (and reimagining) the language of the Bible:
I make senselike a scorpionand the sunwill be smitten.
This voice may come across as witchy or demonic, but it borrows from the vocabulary of Biblical prophesy (see Revelations 8 and 9). Here a female voice assumes the place of John the Divine’s, or perhaps even God the Father’s, recalling Jack Spicer’s dictum “Poet Be Like God” and harkening us back to the poet’s chthonic roots.
But a poem like Armantrout’s “Cold” channels a vision much closer to Macbeth than to Spicer’s work:
What does it taketo stay warm?Fire in a cage,gnawing on wood,throwing spriteafter spriteoffto extinction.Each baby’s soulis cutein the same way.
The notion of “channeling of voices” is perhaps the key to appreciating these lyrics most fully. As she writes in the poem called “Some” in an earlier collection, Next Life:
Someone insists on forming sentenceson my pillowwhen all I want is sleepmarching orderswisecracks about others elsewhereI’d like to kill herbut I’m told it’s shewho must go onat all cost.
Who is this poet channeling? What kind of conversations are her readers observing? A poem called “Remote,” also in Next Life, suggests an answer: “My self-reflection shames God / into watching.” This “self-reflection,” both aggressive and idiosyncratically contemplative, is in a tone uncommon to contemporary devotional poetry. But the aggressiveness on the surface may obscure something deeper at work here. “The mysteries of faith,” Simone Weil wrote in Gravity and Grace, “are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Why Armantrout’s darkness, then? “If evil is a mystery,” Ilona Karmel wrote, “then abyss must remain a mystery that we know only through the glass and darkly. And through our shabby, always perverted human love.” Armantrout’s channeling of voices amounts to more than the poetics of protest or of praise so familiar to this genre. She is asking, as old Muslim prayers did: “Lord, increase my bewilderment.”
For all the inwardness in these poems, the desire to capture the collective experience of the tribe is here, too. “I am waiting on a transfer of poison,” she writes in “Reserved” (also in Next Life), “among strung leaves through the Americas // by dictator, no, // by dictation.” Armantrout is an Americanist in the manner of William Carlos Williams: by “sinking into / what happens,” she immerses herself in the dictions, images, tonalities of speech, and newest deposits into our vocabulary made by pop culture and subculture. Her view of America is appropriately ironic—irony these days, for better or worse, seems to be the American music—and so if the “man in a cardigan / strums a guitar and sings,” he sings about—or rather, lists—“the articles of clothing / your kids will need to get / at Target.”
Armantrout’s irony is not the workaday kind you find in poems written by people who grew up watching Seinfeld. There is a cruel exactitude of observation in her work—an ability to lyricize the “pure products of America” just as they are—that elevates her irony from mere formal device to a mode of brutal clarity. Take, for instance, a moment like this:
In order to produce thispiercing, hysterical laugh,a woman shocks her infantagain and againwith a green parrothand puppet.
Or when Armantrout looks at the country around her and sees the oddity the rest of us walk right past:
Sign in the airport:It is not how muchCloud,but what kind
Or when she hears America around her, its brassy music in which
The devil is a blowsyfailed executivewho fires burn-outsstar after star
My favorite moments in Armantrout’s work are her most essayistic, rhetorical:
If we think dyingis like fallingasleep,then we believewrongly, rightlythat it’s a wayof sinking intowhat happens
These moments remind me of other poets who are friends of cruel irony, short lines, inner rhyme, and who also echo William Carlos Williams—poets contemporary critics have put in camps very much opposed to the camp they have prescribed for Armantrout. I am thinking of Kay Ryan—the four couplets above could easily be found in her work—and Heather McHugh, who seems to speak behind these lines:
Each baby’s soulis cutein the same way.Rapt attentionon a stalk,surprised by thirst.
I mention these other poets not to name-drop or draw parallels in our fiercely—and often foolishly—divided scene, but to show the range of Armantrout’s voice. The fact that she is able to resemble others and yet sound like only herself is no small achievement. The fact that she is able, in book after book, to write her own—and very realistically American—version of “sinking into / what happens” is also no small achievement. She is a poet who in the short lines of her brief, fragmented verse has given us a lot of possibilities, all of them charged with language that aims to contain multitudes.