Have you ever felt that your world—from nuts to newspapers, travelogues to traffic lights—looks like something soaked through with lies? Have you ever felt that the choices you have made in life might be just effects of impersonal forces (such as social class or family habit, or the all-American pressure to buy more stuff)? Do you find yourself attracted to writers who test those uneasy and isolating feelings, and whose difficult, terse language tries to reveal suspicions that most of us hide?
If so, have I got a poet for you. Rae Armantrout first turned up in the late 1970s in the gaggle of left-wing, challenging (sometimes impenetrable) writers known as “language poets.” Unlike many of them, she gives her poems distinguishable subjects, and she keeps them sharp and short: they reflect not only her suspicion of systems (patriarchy, the market economy, habit) but also her astringent, self-questioning temperament.
Armantrout presents small bits of language as if isolating these bits for dissection and scrutiny; she hopes to “handle symbols / without being manipulated by them.” After thirty years of such hopes, this poet has developed the sonic tools for them: a harsh consonantal music of unrhymed couplets, short hanging lines, freeze frames, and grinding scrutinies. She also likes to use those tools against themselves, interrupting serious meditations with incongruous pep, as in “Upper World,” which begins: “If sadness / is akin to patience, // we’re back!” Armantrout’s aversion to plot as destiny, her stern stand against wish-fulfillment, does not prevent her from rewriting myths—Oedipus, Orpheus, even Snow White, from whose fairy tale Armantrout wrings a critique of merito-cratic America, where children stay special as long as their parents can pay:“Once there were people among whom / each one had to be convinced / she was the most wondrous alive / in order to go on living…. / Crews were organized in shifts.”
Armantrout also takes hard looks at our sense of time. Not only do we have no way of knowing what other people see; we also have no way to know that our succession of experiences is real, true, or in the right order with respect to their lives. Up to Speed focuses often on that uncertainty, pursuing vivid memories or slow-motion thoughts: “I stare at the edge // until the word / tulip // comes up / where I thought it might. // But the lag-time / is a problem.”
Up to Speed attacks writers who offer “Luxuriant and spurious code // as art, / as if we were meant to think, / ‘Beautiful!’” Yet what the poems avoid is not beauty but prettiness; they offer, instead, a shy, wiry attraction composed of dissonances and doubts. Armantrout also largely avoids “high culture,” gravitating instead to the least prestigious sectors—for example, to Star Trek:The Next Generation:“The captain plays what’s left / of believable authority / as a Shakespearean actor. / The rest are there to show surprise / each time / the invading cube appears.” Though the poetry sets itself hard against facile symbolisms, it nevertheless finds symbols for the hollow promise of our too-ordinary world: “What pumps to the surface / is all empty // circle-skirt, // a scalloped / white-pink thing.”
Armantrout’s poems some- times seem so sparse and taciturn as to become almost uninter- pretable. At other times, though, they tell us just what they’re about: “He always said my poems were lonely, as if each thing (word, person) stood still, waiting for meaning.” Just so: it is a hyperintelligent, self-critical loneliness, one which the poems investigate, and shine amid, and share.