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!’

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