Reviewed by Thomas Fink
A typical poem in Up to Speed, Rae Armantrout’s first collection since Veil: New and Selected Poems (2001), consists of several numbered sections or parts separated by asterisks. Each section tends to have one- to three-line strophes with relatively short lines, and occasionally there is a single-sentence paragraph or one with a few sentences. These formal qualities are not dissimilar from those of Robert Creeley’s post-60s serial poetry, but the quirkiness of the imagery, gender-inflections, and line breaks ensure that the work could never be confused with Creeley’s. Generally, the relationship among Armantrout’s sections is far from transparent, and titles seldom solve the issue.
In “Almost,” Armantrout speaks of disjunction as a humorous defense against death: “the way we joke / by using non-sequiturs, elliptical remarks / which deliberately suppress context / in advance / of time’s rub-out.” The “we” may include Armantrout’s fellow Language Poets. Successive rereadings of her poems enable possible “contexts” to crawl gradually beyond “suppression.” Before giving a more general account of Armantrout’s persistent themes, I will support this contention with a close look at the three-section “Afterlife,” which begins with a terse judgment about “heaven” as a failure, even an exhaustion of imagination: “Heaven is just this: // twined strands / of winking bulbs // and shiny, fragile ornaments / understood to represent grace // weakly.” This strangely lyrical passage embodies “the paleness of representation” without gesturing toward hope of a vital alternative.
Section two, itself divided into four parts in prose, seems to depart drastically from the title and the first section’s critique of heaven; three separate mini-narratives involve a male (not necessarily the same in each) and the last a male’s observation about the speaker’s poetry:
That morning he feel asleep on the couch, or seemed to, giggling
himself awake repeatedly, once saying, “Orange hair! Orange hair
is orangutan hair!”
Or when we were in bed, he throwing me into a new position
every few seconds as if frantically searching for something.
I followed him to the store because he’d been gone too long. As
I rounded the corner, he was just coming out, but, instead of
turning toward home, he went into the parking lot, scanning it. I
noticed his walk was different.
He always said my poems were lonely, as if each thing (word, per-
son) stood still, waiting for meaning.
In each part, efforts at representation seem incomplete; each perception (“thing”)--perhaps waits “for meaning”: an achievement of a goal (assessment of implications of a discovery of sound-relations, sexual pleasure as profound understanding, exposure of unacceptable behavior). Also, they each include at least an implicit reference to home (“the couch,” “in bed,” “instead of turning toward home”), and the fourth may suggest that a linguistic tendency involves “homelessness.” Then again, in retrospect, the opening section is full of imagery--Christmas ornaments--associated with home, and “heaven” or “afterlife” are figures for home in the anticipated life-after-death.
Section three begins, “I think your homeland / is in sleep’s vicinity.” Indeed, “unconscious desire” is “home,” however uncanny. Next, we find talk of “some reiterative / noodling / in absentia, // almost ‘brush-clad’”: is the poet conveying that the dreamer, absent from conscious intention, repeats waking themes in the dream-state, or that the dead, more literally absent, are used by the living who “noodle” around with “pale” conceptions of “afterlife”? The bizarre adjectival phrase “brush-clad” intensifies uncertainty.
The listener/reader is taunted to articulate the impossible--what the speaker/author, “in absentia,” perceives at the time of utterance: “Can you tell me / what I’m seeing?” Each individual’s vision of “home” is probably unique, but includes a desire for psychological security amid uncertainties about living and “afterlife”:
There’s a sound like voices there
singing, “Don’t worry.”
Does that make any sense
I think you’re being escorted
Then the tip encysts
where a search
has been called off
Desire causes listeners to turn mere “sound” into a simile with the command of reassurance. “Between” the two words enclosed in quotes, difference depends on the presence or absence of “v” and “n,” but the words also gesture toward something between hopelessness/homelessness (“woe”) and a perfectly “woven” expectation of “home.” Gaps threaten this weaving of possibility; so does the sense of premature closure, an end to the search for “home,” “heaven,” or alternative concepts. Such closure promotes infection at “the tip” of thinking. Against this infection, the poet refuses to end the last sentence with a period.
As “Afterlife” suggests, many of the book’s poems dramatize self-understanding as a persistent problem: “Does a creature / curve to meet / itself? / Whirlette!” (“Up to Speed”). This is not a matter of “confession” or excessive inwardness, because exploration of the self is intertwined with the measure of the environment. Awareness of the unreliability of whirling perceptions is crucial, and the often comic ambiguities of language engender further complications: “The material world is made up / entirely // of collisions // between otherwise / indefinite objects. // Then what is a collision?” (“Entanglement”). In a grammatical sense, “the indefinite object” is protected from direct “collision” with the subject, but a material “object,” though surely discernible, is not “definite” because of the mutability resulting, in part, from its colliding with other material elements.
The interaction between dream and waking states is a persistent trope for the difficulties of sorting perception, of being “up to speed” with one’s experience: “Can a dreamer / outwit her dream? // Not on a first date” (“My Advantage”); poetry can act as the “second date” of consciousness: “When a dreamer sees she’s dreaming, / it causes figments to disperse” (“End Times”). “Figments” recall “fragments” which the perceiving self must not coerce into an illusory totality, “Luxuriant and spurious code // as art”; the speaker in “End Times” recognizes that the “time-consuming” and “rushed” transcription of experience breeds error, deviation: “It occurs to me that later I may not be able to read what I wrote.” Even though specific, imagistic description--“Solemn, / blunt flash of sun / off the window / of a Coor’s Light / truck” (“Form”)---appears in many Armantrout poems, such flashes of perception are not reliable touchstones for sensory understanding but keep the individual “an ignorance / on the point of revelation” (“The Fit”).
In “Box,” a poem consisting of single-line stanzas, a dream image suggests how time and the representation of death are the problematic elements for the self, who tries out defensive clowning: “We laugh // to accommodate death. // Dream someone’s placed me // in a red, plastic box // from which now I pop up, // clown-like, // into consciousness. // A time when we agree // the present does not exist, // has never existed.” Of course, how can the eternal non-existence of the present be conceptualized in time as “a time”? How can the living imaginatively enter the “box” of the dead, the non-space of the absence of consciousness/unconsciousness?
Laughter cannot “accommodate” this “beyond,” and the language of paradox exposes its own limitations. It is not Armantrout’s job to resolve such difficulties, but to “play” them on her subtle instrument, to pursue them elaborately, from diverse angles. She masterfully keeps exposing “thought” as “a wish for relation / doubling as a boundary” (“Interior Design”) and keeps representing the frailties of such boundaries.
Note: Rae Armantrout has six new poems forthcoming in the 20th anniversary issue of Verse.