‘Just Saying’ by Rae Armantrout
When Roger Ebert died three weeks ago, I felt compelled to go back and read some of his old reviews of some of my favorite movies. In his review of Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Ebert has an insight about the Allen character, Mickey: “his constant complaint is that it’s all very well for these people to engage in their lives and plans and adulteries, because they do not share his problem, which is that he sees through everything, and what he sees on the other side of everything is certain death and disappointment.”
Part of the appeal of Rae Armantrout’s poetry is the extent to which the poet, while not fixated solely on “certain death and disappointment,” also seems to see through it all. Like Mickey, she is led only to further mystery as a result. But she is so dialed into that mystery, so ready to impart its means and ways without imposing her findings on reality, that she has developed into one of the most clear-eyed American poets since William Carlos Williams.
This is not a new development. Armantrout has been publishing poetry books for 35 years, including three new books in just the last five years. 2009’s Versed earned her a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, and nomination for the National Book Award. Versed may long be considered the poet’s towering achievement. But 2011’s Money Shot is just as viable, and so is her new book, Just Saying.
The poet’s approach in all three books is more or less the same; the differences between them are subtle and have to do with whatever aspects of experience are her greatest preoccupation. She assembles images, thoughts and sensations–things seen, heard, overhead–and finds inconspicuous patterns in them, never losing the abiding sense that saying anything might mean pretending to know too much. Yet many poems lead to overpowering revelations that will be lost on those only committing to a cursory read.
Much of Versed was suggestive of the poet’s battle with what was considered a terminal case of adrenal cortical cancer—a somewhat personal turn for the ostensibly cerebral poet. Armantrout, also an exceptional prose writer, chronicled her battle with cancer in a three-part essay for lybba.org. In part two, she writes:
I was sent to the ICU and I took a notebook with me. Writers write, I told myself. It was a core part of my identity. Of course, I was on heavy pain killers and somehow, too, I had a build up of fluid around my lungs which made it difficult to breathe, but I did take notes. In fact, I started a poem called “Own” there which ended up in my book Versed. There was plenty of material at hand.
The first section of the poem quotes something I heard. It goes, “Woman in a room near mine moans, “I’m dying. I want/to be fine! It’s my body/Don’t let me! Don’t touch me!” Maybe doctors and nurses hear things like this all the time, but, in my condition, the woman’s irrational desperation resonated through me. I thought that might be me in six months or a year. Of course, I don’t know if she was actually dying or if she was just hysterical. The nurses seemed to find her irritating.
This indicates something important about the poet: her ability to key in to her surroundings, and to draw something meaningful from them without being didactic. One thing that makes Versed so powerful and enduring is the way that the poet didn’t necessarily treat her experience with cancer as anything more than another thing that had infiltrated her environment; the poet’s mortality becomes more palpable–and chilling–because of the extent to which she doesn’t deign to change her style, but instead, to allow it to absorb this new experience.
Armantrout survived (I say again, read the piece at lybba.org), and she published the follow-up , Money Shot, in 2011. If Money Shot seemed more squarely aimed at the broader culture–media, money, politics–Just Saying reminds us of Armantrout as a seminal language poet whose subject is always the words she is using as much as whatever she is using them to describe. She sees through things, remember, to the extent that one can, and the language we use is just another forum for this. Here is the entirety of her poem “Spent”:
Suffer as in allow.
List as in want.
Listless as in transcending
desire, or not rising
to greet it.
is to lean,
to one side.
Have you forgotten?
Spent as in exhausted.
The language is the subject itself; it is suspicious of itself, always indicating its own slipperiness. Yet the poem ends lyrically (“Have you forgotten? // Spent as in exhausted”), more Dickinson than Williams, with a great exhale and what can almost be perceived as a moment of empathy: everyone gets exhausted. She also indicates a notion that underlies much of her work; by stating “To list / is to lean, / dangerously / to one side,” she suggests a suspicion that all real knowledge involves negotiating opposing “certainties,” that with new perspectives, fixed points always come unfixed.
The concept surfaces in this lyrical passage from “Scale”:
is an excitation
in an electron field,”
a permanent tizzy
in the presence of
it creates the ground
it can’t stop.
And again in “Midst”:
Singing that bar
about the flock
it were one body—
as if this was one body—
and who could be listening?
The second that things become “one body” is the second we ask what exists beyond that body. It’s a question that constantly regenerates itself, like turtles all the way down. This kind of mystery is important in Armantrout’s poems; there is ceaseless wonder and engagement, but without the expectation of absolute truth. An Armantrout poem can supply catharsis simply by crystallizing the question.
To do this, sometimes providing a clear image is enough:
On the wall in a coffee bar,
a model’s arms
and stern, pretty face
frame a window
(where her chest should be)
and a clear sky beyond
This kind of image is not easy to render. The poet is able to do so economically, and she does so without leading us towards some overt social commentary about body image or objectification. We see it as clearly as she does, and we are permitted to draw our own conclusions, if indeed there are any to draw beyond some identification of the strangeness of humans or the beauty of a clear sky. If I press the issue, I might regard that when we think we are looking for one thing, we very often find something else, something even broader, filled to the brim with the new and unanswered. Nothing provides fewer answers than a clear sky. But the poem is somehow resolute, even final, in its openness.
Her skill at rendering the individual image is matched by great depth of insight into what it means to be a human animal. She constructs her fragments by absorbing the world around her. In some cases, that means identifying and exploring triggers within her own body or mind:
If you became pain, perhaps,
then you could rest.
But it is not possible
to merge with pain.
Seeing through everything means seeing through language, too, as the poet admonishes: “Language exists / to pull things / close.” Language is an mechanism for organizing; it allows one to impose order on thoughts, feelings, and experience. Armantrout reminds us that this, too, is a kind of illusion.
I am taking the Hannah and Her Sisters metaphor too far, because Armantrout is obviously a very different kind of artist. But something that happens towards the end of the movie seems relevant. The arc of Allen’s Mickey is that he is terrified he has a brain tumor, and when he is cleared, finds only fleeting satisfaction. He soon realizes that he has only delayed the inevitable and becomes deeply depressed until finally, watching the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup, he arrives at a revelation: “What if the worst is true? What if there’s no God, and you only go around once and that’s it? Well, you know, don’t you want to be part of the experience?”
Few modern writers see as well, or hear as well, as Armantrout; few are as deeply a “part of the experience.” She ruthlessly challenges common perception and brings back from her psychic frontiers revelations that are earnestly conclusive for the very fact that they are inconclusive and are suggestive of what Wallace Stevens called a new knowledge of reality:
If we think dying
is like falling
then we believe
that it’s a way
of sinking into
joining the program
Rae Armantrout’s full bibliography is important and possibly essential. But it seems to matter that we don’t ignore the incredibly high level at which she is currently writing. If there are few variations in style, one might remember that her poems are new like every day is new: as long as the world is changing, there is fodder. If not order, ideas of order. Stevens closes his book Ideas of Order with an image of “The spruces’ outstretched hands; / The twilight overfull / of wormy metaphors.” Armantrout, like Stevens, embraces universal metaphor. She concludes Just Saying:
I know this one.
[from “Stop and Go”]