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Steve Spence

"Now See" by Rae Armantrout, pub. Periplum Poetry. 27pp

I love these poems for their close attention to the ambiguities of language, for their playfulness and for their shifting between the micro and the macro, from the close-up, domestic to the mind-expanding universal which forces the reader to look anew, to be puzzled anew and to recognise the way in which formal qualities combine with wit to achieve a successful engagement between the world and the word. These are mainly short-line minimalist poems which sing and puzzle and delight all at the same time.

In ‘Even’, for example, we have an encapsulation of what we might call ‘the dark side of human history’, a topical nightmare which brings together past and present and hints at a less than comforting future:


          First they thought
          they could get things

          Then they thought
          they could get

          They even invented numbers
          to find out

          if the harm
          they’d suffered

          equalled the harm
          they’d caused.

          It didn’t.

          Then they cast blame
          into bars

          and carried it

          They were forward looking.
          We are.

          Numbers tick upward
          on a board
          above our heads.

          We’ve lost track
          of what they measure,

          but it’s something bad.

The lines ‘Then they cast blame / into bars’ seems to seems to suggest a whole history of exchange value while the reference to numbers is an image repeated elsewhere in this short collection and has varied implications. Armantrout’s  repeated shifts between the minutia of everyday life and our grand schemes and modes of organisation, aimed supposedly at understanding and even controlling the world, suggest a possible critique while at the same time embracing a lyrical mode which admits to nothing but a delight in the poem itself.

From ‘The Corner’ we get the following: ‘Like a child, mind / wants to play, but / even the butterflies are on the clock.’ Again, it’s the conflict between ‘creative disorder’ and ‘industrial organisation’ which sets up a tension, an uneasy alliance between form and content which makes the thing itself possible. These are poems which pose questions and which ‘undermine’ or challenge themselves as they progress, often by setting up opposing or different forms of language/image use in order to upset our preconceptions or expectations. Yet it’s done in such an apparently light-hearted and energetically exuberant manner that you can only admire the skill of the writer even where something deep and substantial is being suggested.

In ‘Everything’ (an amusing title in itself) we have the poet commenting on the underpinnings of language in a manner which is both immediate/throwaway yet breezily foregrounded – ‘Or the sunset’s bridesmaid / chiffon. /All fricatives.’  This is preceded by the opening stanzas:

          Everything reminds us of sex
          the way sex reminds us
          of everything

          it’s not.
          An apricot perhaps.

The final lines again make play with the poem’s title and have that almost dreamlike quality of vagueness or a cloudy shapeshifting which somehow combines an exactness of language in terms of balance and placing with its exact opposite: ‘The way nothing / is quite / true / and everything bears / repeating.’

Armantrout’s poetry is both intellectually ambitious and cerebral while also being ‘of the world’, sensuous, lyrical and having all those playful aspects which draws a lot of people to poetry in the first place. It’s a relatively unusual combination and she’s been at it for a long time and has achieved a level of success which makes her poetry very attractive in a number of ways. Take these opening stanzas from ‘Care’, for example:

          Dress like you care!
          Eat like you care!
          Care like you care!

          You don’t just think
          apples grow on trees,
          do you?

The poem continues in its roundabout way, thoughts appear to come and go and precede other thoughts and a bunch of apparently disconnections become a perfectly formed piece of minimalist art. As I said at the beginning, I love these poems which are filled with wit and interest, the unexpected turn of phrase constantly catching you out and making you reconsider. Great stuff.



Copyright © Steve Spence, 2019