Where Things Get Fuzzy

Stephanie Burt

  • Partly: New and Selected Poems 2001-15 by Rae Armantrout
    Wesleyan, 234 pp, £27.00, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 8195 7655 2

By 1979, when Rae Armantrout published her second book, The Invention of Hunger, with Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press, she was already what much of the literary world would soon learn to call a ‘language poet’. Like Hejinian, like their Bay Area friend and ally Ron Silliman, and like the writers from the East Coast who ran the magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Armantrout sought a recalcitrant, even opaque, way of writing that could get out from under the assumptions, conventions and restrictions of (among other things) capitalism, patriarchy, Romantic lyric, transparent exposition and prose sense. Yet Armantrout did seem to make prose sense, in a spiky, laconic, take-it-or-leave-it way: ‘I make sense/like a scorpion,’ she later quipped. Her scepticism, her phrase by phrase resistance to habits and conventions, was neither an impulse to revolutionary chaos, nor the mechanical product of an ideology, but an expression of temperament: each phrase in her poems seemed to query the last, to ask of almost anything she saw, or said, or heard, or overheard: ‘Really?’ The last poem in The Invention of Hunger looked at that spinner of fine lines, the spider, ‘three storeys high … intently/and so purely alone’, and then exclaimed: ‘I’m not like that!’

Armantrout had, by then, two desiderata for which any reasonable poet would give a few teeth. She had a style, difficult to predict but easy to spot, one younger poets could copy (many now do). She also had sympathetic friends, readers, even a movement, though (like many women in famous movements) she wasn’t the first to get noticed. After two decades and four more books with small presses, Wesleyan University Press put forward a fine selected poems, Veil, in 2001. In 2009 her tenth book, Versed, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

The same things that make her work easy to recognise make it hard to see how it has changed. Partly, which picks up where Veil left off, shows that she has changed, though the collection’s circular arrangement – new poems first, then book by book chronological order, from Up to Speed (2002) to Itself (2015) – emphasises her consistency. The short, irregular, wary, slow-paced lines; the constant self-interrogation; the slow burn of anger against consumer society, against sexism, against the false parts of the Californian dream; the mix of bizarrely observed visual detail and overheard, reframed cliché – they’re all still there, from the false cheer of the phrase ‘We’re back!’ to the ‘bungalows/behind car-washes/painted the colour of/swimming pools’ in the same poem.

The signal events of her early adulthood – the ones that show up in her verse, once you catch sight of them – were her discovery of a peer group in Berkeley and San Francisco; her move back to her native San Diego, whose dry, sunlit stand-alone homes inform many lines; and her experience of raising a son. The late poems in Partly react, instead, to her son’s adulthood; to her reading in physics and other laboratory sciences; and to her diagnosis and treatment, starting in 2006, for adrenal cancer.

To see those reactions you have to see the attitudes that condition them. Armantrout doesn’t simply articulate theories (familiar to some, but only some, of her readers) about how we’re all constructed, epiphenomenal, or insincere: she shows what it’s like to feel that the theories are true, and does so by turning inward, cautiously, patiently, so that we might consider them too. (Other poets attached to similar theories – John Wilkinson, say – pursue them aggressively, rapidly, with the kind of pride that comes before a fall.) ‘We wake up to an empty room/addressing itself in scare quotes,’ as one poem has it; Armantrout’s style puts everything in scare quotes, including the scare quotes. Her poetry comes to grips with, and tries to explain, the notion – anathema to most earlier poets – that superpersonal structures, material circumstances, received ideas, or capital flows control what and who we are: ‘A self/is a lagging//indicator’; ‘behaviour/is a pile of clothes//I might or might not wear.’ More generally, structuralism is true:

What counts
is the role
defined for each piece
by a system of rules saying
how it can move,
not the stuff
the piece is made of.

Such phrases – and Partly is replete with them – permit double and triple meanings: they describe chess and human institutions, as well as computer code and dating. ‘Experts’ portrays human beings having sex, and the biology of tunicates, and attempts at conversation, in the same words: in all three cases ‘we’ – the human partners, or the ‘sea squirts’ – ‘co-ordinate our thrusts/by habit/to minimise distraction’. Such double or multiple meanings, which occupy the foreground in her poems, lurk behind all human interaction, casting doubt on everything we intend: ‘About can mean near/or nearly’; refrain can mean ‘stop’ or ‘a repeated phrase’.

Armantrout also finds more obvious figures for her kind of global doubt. ‘Mistakes’ likens her (plausible) view of our lives – in which we misunderstand ourselves constantly – to Capgras syndrome, whose sufferers believe their friends and family are simulacra: ‘The subject will claim/that she has been taken/to the wrong place … That these comings and goings/are happening/to someone else … That she needs to tell/someone.’ (Who could she tell?) Elsewhere, her caustic takes on bourgeois pieties could be aphorisms worthy of Cioran or Kraus: ‘If you love me,/worship//the objects/I have caused//to represent me/in my absence.’ We encourage dishonesty in others, we can’t keep track of ourselves, and much of our expression resembles the saccades and escapades of the human eyeball, which ‘must move//to prevent/blank spots//from making themselves/known.’ ‘Ponzi scheme; rhyme scheme’, exclaims a poem called ‘Bubble Wrap’: symbolism, literary tradition, social hope, erotic life (‘In the dream,/you slip inside me’) and even attempts at self-knowledge, are all – in this mood – plastic bubbles the poet may pop.

But she has other goals, and other moods. Though she can still come across (as she did in the 1970s and 1980s) as wonderfully sarcastic, curtly appalled, she’s now often patient, or sadly wry, or resigned: we are all in this vale of deception together, and time marches forward along with our lies, its ‘slender/second hand//jerking forward/as if helpless,//making its same sound’. Armantrout’s latter-day attention to temporality, to moment by moment experience, translates well into her sickroom poetry, where minutes crawl by or race past, bringing with them ‘the fear/that all this/will end.//The fear/that it won’t.’ ‘Metaphor’, Armantrout muses, ‘forms/a crust’ over ‘the crevasse/of each experience’: poems – especially those in Versed (2009) and Money Shot (2011) – that touch on her treatment for cancer seem to ask whether her earlier style, with its halting, self-accusing cadence, can fit that particular medical crevasse.

Usually it must, it can, it will. Cancer itself becomes a kind of rebellion staged by what is incomprehensible, unrepresentable, illegitimate, against a human being’s desire to govern her cells, her body, her life:

On closed eyes I see the spartan wall of the ICU
covered in a scrambled hodge-podge of sticky notes,
crossing one another at all angles,
illegibly written over, snippets of reference,
madly irrelevant.

But the poem (called ‘Own’) continues:

Symbolism as the party face of paranoia.
Chorus of expert voices beyond my door, forever
dissecting my case.

‘But the part is sick
of representing the whole.’

(What labour that line break after ‘sick’ performs.) Elsewhere a body – especially one being treated for cancer – is like a society, like an economy, not entirely subject to conscious control: ‘We don’t feel the body,/but we receive conflicting reports … The body is under-/performing in heavy/trading.’ (What kind of trading? The one where individual investors almost always lose.)

As she turned – especially after her treatment – away from biology and economics, and towards physics, Armantrout got calmer, sadder, almost tragically composed. Sometimes she spoke to herself almost as to a child: ‘Light was full speed/when it got interrupted … How could speed take shape?//Hush!/Do you want me to start over?’ She also looked back. ‘Scale’ – her scaled-down version, I think, of Yeats’s ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ – remembers a youth in which Armantrout ‘craved the small picture’, the self-contained miniaturism of ‘Russian icons’. Now she compares her poems to electrons as understood by quantum theory, probability fields of indeterminate size: each electron is ‘a permanent tizzy … Like thought/it creates the ground/it covers,//like thought/it can’t stop’. Her wonderfully polyvalent title ‘The Ether’ refers at once to the medium for light waves (according to now discredited physicists’ models), to anaesthesia, and to life after death: ‘We’re out/past the end//game where things/get fuzzy,//less thingy.’

Her things don’t always look fuzzy. Armantrout has become a prolific observer of her built environment, the synthetic compromises and xerophile beauties of southern California, weaving descriptions in among her quoted, or quotable, abstractions and propositions and reframed clichés: ‘Pairs/of powerlines//hold grey/interstates//between them’; ‘a few/self-starters’ exhibit ‘sharp/rocket-fin leaves’. In the same new poem (called ‘If’) the human psyche is

a plant like a half-
folded accordion,

a plant like a pale
rock, split in two

as if to ask,
‘Where

is the original?’

Even her most ambitious descriptions – those that bring her closest to, say, William Carlos Williams, or to Edward Thomas for that matter – remind us that we see only what we have learned to see, what our lives and our societies will let us see, that there is no unmediated nature:

The cold rays
of the bristle cone,

she writes –

she who admires
imitations.

Such sparse coronas
surrounding

every knobby
fist!

All recognition is misrecognition, according to these dense, self-conscious lines. As writers, as observers of rocks or of people, we impose the patterns we think we discover, and then marvel at what we fondly believe we have found.

That cone, that pale rock, that word ‘like’, point up a dilemma familiar to philosophers of language, and central to Armantrout. The language we get, the language we inherit, depends on resemblance: I call a thing a wrench only because it resembles other things that I know are wrenches, and I know they are called wrenches because someone told me. As for ‘wrenches’, so for ‘poems’, ‘kids’, ‘love’: familiar terms either don’t fit you (because your feelings are not like others’), in which case you’re stuck down a well, isolated, ‘not seconded’; or they do fit you, in which case you (and I) are simulacra, predictable copies, like the people and things in ‘Two, Three’:

Sad, fat boy in pirate hat.
Long, old, dented
copper-coloured Ford.

How many traits
must a thing have
in order to be singular?

(Echo persuades us
everything we say
has been said at least once
               before.)

But sometimes Echo is wrong. It would be absurd to depict Armantrout without depicting her pessimism, even cynicism, but it would be seriously misleading to say that she gives up on expression, or novelty, or sympathy, or even lyric. Her poem ‘Make It New’ refreshes the Poundian slogan, first rephrasing carpe diem and ubi sunt as car dealers’ slogans: ‘Each poem says,/“I’m desperate” then, “Everything/must go!”’ But to recognise the commonality between François Villon and Crazy Eddie’s Used Fords, Armantrout implies, is not to give up on art: someone will always, her poem concludes,

                    have set down
a diner or a gas station
at a desolate crossroads

and tried naming it
to evoke
the whole human situation

while
satirising
the impulse to do so.

What that name will be
is the one thing we don’t know