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

Monday, March 1, 2010

Marjorie Perloff: An Afterword for Rae Armantrout

[Written for Narrativ, Rae Armantrout’s selected poems translated into German by Uda Strätling und Matthias Göritz and published in a blingual edition by Luxbooks, Wiesbaden, Germany, in 2009]

Rae Armantrout, Ron Silliman once observed “belongs to what might be characterized as the literature of the vertical anti-lyric, those poems that at first glance appear contained and perhaps even simple, but which upon the slightest examination rapidly provoke a sort of vertigo effect as element after element begins to spin wildly toward more radical (and, often enough, sinister) possibilities.”

“Vertical anti-lyric” is an apt term for Armantrout’s unique form of minimalist poetry—a poetry like no one else’s. Although she began her writing career as one of the West Coast Language poets, a member of the important circle that included Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Carla Harryman, and Silliman himself, and although she has remained very close to these poets, collaborating with them, for example, on the current group autobiographical project The Grand Piano, Armantrout has always been different. Just how different has become clear in the last decade or so when, without in any way renouncing—or even qualifying- her aesthetic principles, she has found herself increasingly admired by the Establishment—by Ivy League critics, mainstream publishing houses, and The New Yorker. Today, Armantrout is considered—as she should be-- one of the finest poets writing in the USA.

How did it happen? (Mary) Rae Armantrout was born in Vallejo, California in 1947 and grew up in San Diego. An only child, she has given an unsparing, if not unsympathetic portrait of her parents in her memoir True (1998). Her working-class father was Chief Petty Office on the local naval base, her mother worked in a candy store; both were people of limited means, interests and aspirations, and her father drank heavily. By the time she was an adolescent, Armantrout, an avid reader, was quite alienated from her family, her dreary suburban neighborhood and its third-rate public schools. But she seems never to have felt sorry for herself or considered herself a victim. On the contrary, she invented various romantic scenarios for her future, enrolled at San Diego State University and then, on a whim, applied to, and was accepted by, the University of California at Berkeley, at that time a Mecca for intellectuals, radical poets, and anti-war activists. Armantrout soon found herself studying with one of her youthful idols, Denise Levertov, and making friends with poets like Silliman and Hejinian. For a young girl who grew up in tract housing communities with names like Allied Gardens, it was a great time and place to be alive in. Armantrout received an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State in 1975 and published her first book Extremities in Berkeley in 1978.

But then she did something surprising. Having married her San Diego State sweetheart Chuck Korkegian, she moved back home, and she and Chuck, a book dealer, have lived in San Diego, where their son Aaron was born in 1979, ever since. Partly, as she suggests in True, her return was motivated by a sense of class difference: unlike many of her poet friends, she couldn’t afford to travel or to be a poetry groupie in New York or San Francisco. Then, too, Armantrout evidently felt most comfortable in her familiar environment, taking as her subject matter the cartoonish—but also poignant--world of roadside diners, fenced yards, and crabgrass “tipped with green” she knew so well. In this respect, she resembles the poet who in many ways provided her with her lyric paradigm, William Carlos Williams of Paterson, New Jersey.

But unlike Williams (or Levertov), Armantrout was never a poet of concrete particulars: from the first, her minimalist lyrics were breaking the Williams mold. Consider the early little poem “Dusk” (Dämmern):

spider on the cold expanse
of glass, three stories high
rests intently
and so purely alone.

I’m not like that!

[Spinne auf kaltem Geviert aus Glas, oben im dritten Stock ruht so gebannt Und vollkommen bei sich. So bin ich nicht!]

Williams would have tracked the spider’s movement, keeping his eye on the object as he does in “As the cat. . .” (first the right forefoot / then the hind. . .”). But Armantrout begins with what is a rather surreal image (how does one notice a spider at such a distance?), only to turn inward, viewing the insect in human terms, “rest[ng] intently,” “so purely alone,” and then suddenly turning the whole situation inside out with the exclamation, “I’m not like that!” What can this explanation mean? Is the spider rebuking the poet for thinking it is “like that” (intent, alone)? Or, conversely, is the poet saying, “How dare you think of me in spider terms! I’m not like that!” Or again, “I’m not going to metaphorize about spiders as Robert Frost did in “Design” (“I caught a dimpled spider…”). Or does the exclamation refer to making poetry: I’m not going to get involved in a lot of Romantic Einfühlung about spiders! I’m not like that!”

However we construe these four little words, the line is genuinely startling—the declaration of a poet who refuses to go with the flow. Here is a more complex example from a later poem, “Close,” in Next Life (2007):

CLOSE (Dicht)


As if a single scream
gave birth

to whole families of traits

such as “flavor,” “color,”

and this tendency to cling.

[Wie wenn ein einziger Schrei die Geburt ganzer Familien von Eigenschaften wäre “Geschmack,” “Farbe,” “Dreh” Und dieser Drang zu klammern]


Dry white frazzle
in a blue vase--


a frozen swarm
of incommensurate wishes.

[Verdörrte weiße Franzen in blauer Vase— Schön— ein gefrorener Schwarm inkomensurabler Wünsche.]


Slow, blue, stiff
are forms
of crowd behavior

Come close.

The crowd is made of
little gods

and there is still
no heaven

[Schwer, blau, steif sind Formen Massenhysterie. Komm dichter ran. Die Mengen sind kleine Götter und noch immer nirgends ein Himmel]

In a recent interview, Armantrout described her writing process this way: “I make desultory notes for awhile, over the course of days or weeks, and see what emerges, see what sticks to what, what sort of units form. Most often the parts out of which the poem is composed retain some autonomy. They are arranged as a series separated by numbers or asterisks.” In “Close,” the three sections (7, 5, and 9 lines respectively, with no line having more than 5 words) seem at first quite unrelated. The setting in which the poet’s thoughts occur is not given, but one surmises that someone (perhaps the poet’s mother who wants her daughter to feel “close’ to her) is suggesting that the “single scream” of birth gives way “to whole families / of traits.” Or that the speaker herself wonders if it her fate to inherit those traits, punningly said to come in “families.” But the cliché of family likeness is immediately repudiated because the “traits” evoked are not character traits at all but rather matters of taste, which can, of course, be acculturated. Flavor, color, and spin: in the nomenclature of physics, these are the traits ascribed to sub-atomic particles. But the line break undercuts this triad too: the argument for genetic predisposition, Armantrout implies, is just a lot of “spin.” As for the fourth, “this tendency to cling”: that’s the sort of trait one doesn’t want to inherit!

Here are the “sinister possibilities” Silliman spoke of with reference to Armantrout’s “vertical anti-lyric.” The poet’s “conversation,” broken and partial as it is, reveals the absurdity, but also the pathos, of the familial relationship. In #2, the scene seems to shift slightly as the poet (perhaps visiting her mother in the hospital?) dutifully admires the “dry white” flowers in a blue vase. What can one say but “beautiful,” and who says it? Underneath the politeness, the speaker is cruelly characterizing the “Dry, white frazzle” of flowers as “a frozen swarm / of incommensurate wishes.” Whose wishes, the poet’s or her interlocutor’s? One cannot know for sure, but the poem bristles with an understated hostility, a sense of fracture.

The third section provides yet another twist to this narrative. “Slow, blue, stiff,” referring back to the vase of flowers, are now seen, by metaphorical extension, as “forms / of crowd behavior.” Not the screaming crowd of political rallies or ball games, of course, but perhaps the moving crowd in a Fascist parade or in a religious procession. These have a sort of beauty too, don’t they? And the participants think of themselves as special people—“little gods.” But—and here is Armantrout deflating her picture still further-- “there is still no heaven.” The poet’s mother may be close to death, but there is no religious consolation.

“My poetry,” Armantrout remarked in an essay called “Cheshire Poetics,” 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.” This is an apt analysis of what happens in a poem like “Close.” So much depends, here and in Armantrout’s other poems, on what is not said. Silence (or the white space of the page) is a central element in these lyrics, which usually begin in medias res. “As if a single scream / gave birth.” To what is the scream being compared? And who is making the comparison? Armantrout’s is, in John Ashbery’s words on Gertrude Stein, “an open field of narrative possibilities.” We can say that “Close” is “about” family tension, ritual, and self-delusion, and that for this poet, family rites and their religious counterpart are closely linked. “Close” is also a poem about the difficulty of communication, of reaching out to a loved one, and getting what feels like a busy signal. But so evocative are the words in their short abrupt lines, that many readings are possible.

In keeping with the indeterminacy of its “Cheshire poetics,” Armantrout’s is a lyric at once local and global. Her San Diego is neither the beautiful beach resort La Jolla, above which the University of California, where Armantrout teaches, is located, nor the gateway to Mexico further south. Rather, this is a world of “flimsy backporches linked / by skeletal stairways” of “honeysuckle, thrown like an arm / around a chain-link fence,” of a “young girl listening / to ‘Angel Baby” / on a pink plastic radio / while staring out her window / at the planet Venus,” or again, a “wood pole’s / rosy crossbar, / shouldering a complement of knobs, / like clothespins / or Xmas lights.” One could find these telephone poles anywhere today, and yet they seem indigenous to this place, where the poet lives. And she responds to such sights and sounds, not with despair or disgust, but with a certain bemusement, sometimes tinged by irritation. Yes, she seems to be telling her readers, these telephone poles are really eyesores, and the words like “Hi Fishy!” overheard in the local café, are hardly profound. But for the attentive poet, those words may just trigger, as they do in the poem “Co-Existence,” some really interesting—and surprising-- responses. The main thing is to X-Ray the scene—to get rid of stock response, cliché, the expected feeling. As Armantrout puts it in “My Problem”:

It is my responsibility
to squeeze
the present from the past
by demanding particulars

When the dog is used
to represent the inner
man, I need to ask
“What kind of dog is it?”

[Es liegt an mir heute aus gestern zu pressen auf Details versessen Wenn der Hund bennutzt wird als Chiffre fürs Innen leben, muss ich fragen: “Was für ein Hund?”]

No symbols, where none intended, as Beckett said. Before you use a given word metaphorically, Armantrout cautions, you had better know what it refers to literally—what it is. It is this extraordinary attentiveness to nuance, coupled with a total absence of condescension, that makes Armantrout such a beguiling poet. Her voice—and she would immediately object that she doesn’t believe in lyric “voice”—is entirely her own.


Willie said...

Wonderful piece. Thank you for posting it.

Andrew Burke said...

Yes, very interesting and perceptive article. Thank you. You have clarified some aspects of her practice which I was vague about.

hema said...

Yes, very interesting and perceptive article.

Mark Granier said...

'But Armantrout begins with what is a rather surreal image (how does one notice a spider at such a distance?)...'

Presumably because the spider 'on the cold expanse / of glass, three stories high' is being watched 'intently' from inside, behind the window. Or am I missing something?

I like the poem though. The abrupt gear-change reminds me a little of James Wright's 'Hammock' poem, that contradictory last line: 'I have wasted my life.'

I enjoyed the essay too. Thanks.

Jay said...

Mark Granier's comment is very perceptive, but the truth is that the first time I read the poem I too wondered how anyone could see a spider "three stories high."

This little jolt of thought or perception is one of the most prominent features of Armantrout's poetry.