To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Rae Armantrout, BABEL, a Poem & a Comment, plus an excerpt from Collected Prose


“Let us go down and confuse
their language

so we may distinguish
the people
from our thoughts.”


Can it be true
that the baby is afraid

his wish
to gobble us up

has been realized


Hard to say
since we’ve thrown our voice

into the future
and the past


The first two lines of this poem are quoted from the Genesis account of The Tower of Babel. The rest of the poem is a dialogue with God, the speaker of those lines – a dialogue in which, I confess, I freely put words in His mouth. I also taunt him. So maybe I am playing the role of Satan. I just now realized that. No wonder so many bad things have been happening to me!

Babel, not previously published, will appear without the terminal “comment” in Versed, Armantrout’s next book from Wesleyan University Press.

* * *

[The following is my abridgement of an essay/talk by Armantrout, published last year in Collected Prose by Singing Horse Press, where it can be read in its entirety – that & much else.]


My statement of poetics is going to be a personal narrative of sorts. I spent my twenties (during the 1970’s) in the Bay Area—at one of the origin points for what came to be known as “Language poetry” and I am, of course, one of the people associated with that group. Most of you know that—but when you know that, what do you know? This group is as varied, as diverse as any poetic school you can think of. So I want to look farther back—at what first drew me to poetry. When I was a teenager I was given an anthology, and the poets I most loved there were William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson. So I was drawn to poems that seemed as if they were either going to vanish or explode—to extremes, in other words, radical poetries. But how do we define “radical?” Perhaps by how much is put at risk in the text, how far the arc of implication can reach and still seem apt. But so much rides, as always, on that word “seems.” Is a writing radical when it risks being wrong, when it acknowledges our wrongness? I think my poetry involves an equal counterweight of assertion and doubt. It’s a Cheshire poetics, one that points two ways then vanishes in the blur of what is seen and what is seeing, what can be known and what it is to know. That double-bind. But where was I?

I was saying that I discovered Williams (and the other Imagists) early on and was very much moved by them. By what, though? I would say now it was by their attempt to make the object speak, to put things in dialogue with mind and somehow make them hold up their end of the conversation. This is both an important project and a doomed one. The world enters the poem only through a kind of ventriloquy. Thing and idea don’t really merge, as the poets themselves knew. That red wheelbarrow is essentially separate from the “so much” that depends upon it. But there is so much poignancy in that gap! It is as if the Imagist poet wants to spin around suddenly and catch the world unaware, in dishevelment, see it as it is when we’re not looking. And how can we not want that?

* * *

My earliest published poems were minimalist and neo-Imagist. A good example would be “View.”

Not the city lights. We want
—the moon—

The Moon
none of our own doing!

Looking back on it now, I see an exacerbated form of the doubleness which interested me in [a poem like] Williams’s “Attic” [discussed earlier in her talk]. “View” has not only two meanings, but two dissonant meanings. On the one hand, “we” (an already suspect first person plural) want to see the moon as separate from our own activity (a bit of the world caught unawares). On the other hand, our yearning is framed by deflating clichës. To want the moon is to want the impossible. Our thrust toward the non-human moon can’t escape the gravity of received language. The purportedly single voice of the nature lover and the words of a somewhat cynical crowd seem to collide.

So this is a poetics of collisions and overlaps, contested spaces. The border of the public and private is just such a contested space. To use dream imagery in a poem, for instance, is to expose something private, but what if a recent film inspired the dream? As I have become increasingly conscious of such contested spaces and the voices that articulate them, my poems have become somewhat longer and more complicated.

The concept of voice has long been associated with poetry. We all hear voices, on the radio, in the newspaper, in memory. As Whitman says, “I contain multitudes.” As Satan says, “My name is legion.” Various voices speak in my poems. I code-shift. I am many things: a white person, a working class person with roots in the South, a woman, an academic of sorts, a ’60s person who still likes rock and roll, someone who was raised on the Bible, a skeptic, etc. My voices manifest their own social unrest. In the last decade or so, academics have been raising the question of who speaks in literary works, who speaks and for whom. There is a contemporary poetry which enacts these same questions. Consider my poem, “The Creation.”

bribe or threaten
in order to live.

Retreating palisades
a lasting


Let us
move fast
enough, in a small
enough space, and
our travels
will take first
shape, then substance.


In the beginning
there was measurement.
How much
does self-scrutiny
resemble mother-touch?


Die Mommy scum!

To come true,
a thing must come second.

In the third and fourth stanzas, a Biblical voice and the voice of scientific reason overlap in a farcical attempt to account for origin. In the final stanza, a third voice, apparently that of a child, breaks in. This voice seems to have a more immediate authority. But the last statement, “To come true/a thing must come second,” while it may sound true, also makes truth secondary. Such declarative statements have a “truth-effect,” like a false bottom, which gives way on second thought. There is, in fact, no voice which can be trusted in this poem. Mine is a poetics of the double take, the crossroads.

1 comment:

lesbian bondage said...

I was interested know about it.