Monday, March 30, 2009

Rae Armantrout: Next Life and Versed

Having known nothing of her work previously, with the publication of Rae Armantrout’s newest trade poetry collection, Versed (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009), her tenth or eighth book of poetry (whether or not you want to believe the inside back flap author biography or the one inside the book itself), I thought it good to also pick up a copy of her previous collection, Next Life (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007). Going through the poems in her previous volume, I find the short moments of phrases interesting, in the way she knows to step back from completion just enough, almost writing a semaphore, writing dot, dot, dash. As much as anyone writing short phrases in clipped lines shouldn’t automatically be compared to the late Robert Creeley, it’s hard to stay away from him here as an influence, especially with a poem dedicated to him. There’s even something ghazal-like as well to her composition (thinking specifically of the Canadian ghazal that began with John Thompson), working a leap to leap element that rides each poem through a seeming disconnect that still manages to hold, and in a way that almost make all of her poems into one extended serial unit, much like the work of Fanny Howe. Everything connects into everything else.

Next Life


Last of all and
most reluctantly
you said goodbye to
and “far away.”


clouds sprout

from one another’s

But you were more exact.

You unzipped yourself
in the dark

back there,

counted yourself
in half

and cut.

That was before numbers.


“Don’t be a commodity;

be a concept:”

a ghostly configuration
of points or parts—

trivia snippets—

which appear inside
locked cabinets.

Be untraceable
but easy to replicate.

Be relative.

Be twice as far
and halfway back

Two years further, in Versed, the two extended sequences, “Versed” and “Dark Matter,” seem to extend the argument of a single poem. The late bpNichol once suggested that all of his work was part of larger single project, but made it sound almost arbitrary, that it was all “made by the same hand,” but for Armantrout, it does read closer to Howe, writing a further line, a further stanza and a further poem that exists as a part of this larger ouvre (far more than, say, Robert Kroetsch’s poetry all fitting into the structure of “Field Notes”). Her poems almost seem as a single extended piece, an accumulation of short, halting lines and phrases, holding the breath, burst after burst, and the poems in this collection don’t seem to contradict, as in this piece from the second section of Versed, that writes:


“Widely expected,
if you will,

Things I’d say,
am saying,

to persons no longer

Yards away trim junipers
make their customary

“Oh, no thank you”
to any of it.

If you watch me
from increasing distance,

I am writing this

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