I HAD the good fortune — as an undergraduate in the mid-1970s — to work with the poet Hank Lazer, then a PhD candidate and my TA in an introductory poetry workshop at the University of Virginia. Hank introduced me to poets and poetry scholars more experimental, political, or “radical” [Late Latin radicalis “of or having roots” from Latin radix (genitive radices) “root,” (as in “radish”)] than I might have encountered on my own — Denise Levertov, Susan Howe, Robert Duncan, Muriel Rukeyser, Louis Simpson, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Marjorie Perloff, Jerome McGann. It would be some years, however, before I would come to know the work of Rae Armantrout, in part because when Hank was my teacher she was just beginning to publish her early books in limited editions with small California presses — her first, Extremities (The Figures Press, 1978), followed by The Invention of Hunger (Tuumba Press, 1979). Fittingly, it was another radical poet, Emily Dickinson, who led me to Armantrout; to paraphrase Susan Howe in My Emily Dickinson, “my precursor attract[ed] me to my future.”
“I don’t much like horror movies but I love Emily Dickinson,” Armantrout wrote in a 2006 essay, “Looking for Trouble,” published in The Emily Dickinson Journal. “Her attraction to the trouble-spots attracts me, her relentless doubt and her ‘Arctic Confidence’ . . . held in equipoise.” In that essay, Armantrout forged and ignited new neural pathways for me into one of my favorite Dickinson poems, Franklin 554 (“I had not minded – Walls”), a piece, as Armantrout puts it, that “envisions a subtle yet impassable barrier between the believer and the mind of God”:
... But ’tis a single Hair –
A filament – a law –
A Cobweb – wove in Adamant –
A Battlement – of Straw –
A limit like the Vail
Unto the Lady’s face –
But every Mesh – a Citadel –
And Dragons – in the Crease –
“[Dickinson’s] take on the universe is radical in several ways,” Armantrout continues. “It plays tricks with dimensions. What we intuitively take to be three-dimensional and extensive is present as (almost?) two-dimensional. (Does this anticipate string theory? The theory of the universe as hologram?) She first shrinks the cosmos to an abstraction in a kind of reverse big bang then expands again into a metaphor. The vehicles of the metaphor, the adamant cobweb, the battlement of straw, and the veil hiding dragons, might be seen as depictions of deceptive feminine weakness. I called my selected poems Veil in tribute to this poem of hers.”
This 2006 piece in the Emily Dickinson Journal spurred me to buy a copy of Armantrout’s Veil: New and Selected Poems, published a few years before by Wesleyan University Press, with a characteristically intrepid foreword by Ron Silliman. Not long after I began my foray into Armantrout’s work, her collection Versed won both the National Book Circle Critics Award and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2010. Since receiving those honors, Armantrout has gone on to publish Money Shot (2011), Just Saying (2013), and Itself (2015), all with Wesleyan.
I admire in Armantrout’s work much of what I prize in Dickinson — surprising, destabilizing diction; slippage of scale and person; paratactic daring; a fierce, riddling intelligence that is at once utterly clear and intricately obdurate; a mix of abstraction and image, of seriousness and humor, of discourses and contexts, particularly the scientific and the quotidian; an awareness of words; and a provocative, stereoscopic obsession with story and fiction that resists neat resolution. Because I am best acquainted with Armantrout’s relatively recent work, I was eager, for this series pairing a second book of poetry written over 20 years ago with a recently published second poetry collection, to locate Armantrout’s first two books, and to take a special look into the second to see something of the roots of this remarkable writer, who is associated with the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, but who also, like any original artist allied with any school or group, is very much her own stylist.
I was pleased to find that the University of Virginia Library holds original copies of both Extremities (32 mostly very short poems or poems in short sections, printed in an edition of 500) and The Invention of Hunger, comprised of six poems, elegantly designed and printed at Tuumba Press by Lyn Hejinian (the copy I’m reading is number 375 in an edition of 450). Also a deep delight was finding just how very much these early poems possess the compression, imagination, and conceptual and linguistic verve of “mature” Armantrout poems. In an essay on her own style, “Cheshire Poetics,” published in Fence in 2000, Armantrout names William Carlos Williams and Dickinson as early influences (“I was drawn to poems that seemed as if they were either going to vanish or explode — to extremes in other words”). Her own work, Armantrout admits,
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. […] Mine is a poetics of the double take, the crossroads.
In “Veil,” the title poem from Armantrout’s New and Selected, the narrator calls herself a “segmentalist” and a “mentalist,” and one sees from these very earliest poems (some in the first book written when Armantrout was still a student at Berkeley) both Williams’s sense of a poem as “a small (or large) machine made of words” and of Dickinson’s work as a fetishist (in which objects masquerade as “stories,” or, as the etymology of “fetish” suggests, as something facere, cleverly, bewitchingly, fascinatingly made), with the implication that whatever “whole” may be conjured is certainly not reducible to the mere sum of its parts (thus Dickinson’s admonition that it’s impossible to split the lark and find the music).
In her second collection, The Invention of Hunger, Armantrout continues the intense “economy” and meta-awarenesses of her first-book poems, as in “Extremities” (note the “words” embedded in those swords),
Going to the Desert
is the old term
‘landscape of zeros’
the glitter of edges
again catches the eye
to approach these swords!
lines across which
beings vanish / flare
the charmed verges of presence
and “Anti-Short Story”:
A girl is running. Don’t tell me
“She’s running for her bus.”
All that aside!
She also extends the poems in ways that very much signal the frictions and fictions of the poems in Veil and beyond. Here are the last sections of a longer poem, “Fiction,” from The Invention of Hunger, some prose and some verse — a piece that concerns, among other things, the generational anxiety accompanying the birth of a child, and which questions the veracity of any narrated experience, or the possibility that life might ever resemble the twists, turns, and resolutions of an “invented” plot:
Furthering the story.
‘the ends of the species’
Driving imitated sanity.
Blurred gargoyles shrank into the past.
Why should she notice or care?
When her husband was late she imagined him dead. Now that he had a son, she feared, he could be killed on the highway.
“Everything’s a message,” her friend said. And her son’s birth injury must be a sign, symbol of some weakness in her thinking or her life.
crying because lost. The growing
fibers of desire cannot
Fuss Balloon. Squirm Bag. The hero’s nicknames described unexpected animation.
In the Bach fugue it was difficult to know which theme was the traveller with whom one should identify. One’s self
In his old age he went mad. Any stress, including the imminent operation, returned him to an incident that occurred during WWII. The ‘Japs’ had torpedoed his ship and it had almost sunk. Now, whenever he got agitated, he would yell, “We’re taking on water.” This idea was like a painted screen let down between himself and the particulars of his danger.
The French reserve a special past tense for fictions.
She seemed to enjoy each new crisis as if it were a complication in the plot of a comedy, a mere detour en route to the happy resolution she was still expecting ‘after this’ old ‘after this’ dear ‘after this’
In poems like “Fiction” and the opening poem, “Natural History” (“Discomfort marks the boundary. // One early symptom was the boundary. // The invention of hunger”), we see the matrix of Armantrout’s “Cheshire Poetics,” what she calls her precision and her doubleness. Referring to Dickinson’s “A narrow Fellow in the Grass,” Armantrout writes,
There’s no good segue from Dickinson. But, in their own way, I think, my poems enact such fissures. They are composed of conflicting voices. Formally, too, they are often disjunctive. The relation between stanza and stanza or section and section is often oblique, multiple or partial. This isn’t an accident. It’s a way to explore the relation of part to whole. This relation is a vexed one. Does the part represent the whole? Is metaphor fair to the matter it represents?
Art, she suggests, is sometimes a matter of “inventing” a lack, a space, something that resembles the ineffable, or death, to which humans can return with the fulfillments, however fissured or fragmented, that only language can offer. As she puts it in a later poem, “Purpose,” which could just as well — with its subtext of fiction (the myth of the Fall), its somatic/scientific tropes, its wordplay (“loss is... inevitable”) — belong to her second volume, Armantrout writes:
From the first
is to filter
passers-by through your
What if appetite
is a by-product?
If you pass through
you may see someone
Here’s your mother
with her anxious grasp,
Like Armantrout, poet and novelist Ye Chun, whose second book of poems, Lantern Puzzle, appeared a few months ago from Tupelo Press, is a potent minimalist. Though perhaps a more recognizably lyric poet than Armantrout (Armantrout “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,” Silliman writes, “but which upon the slightest examination rapidly provoke a sort of vertigo effect as element after element begins to spin wildly toward more radical ... possibilities”), Ye shares with Armantrout a gift for compressing into small spaces a prodigious and fluid range of at times seemingly unconnected and suggestive perceptions in a manner that becomes emblematic of inner questioning, desire, and a restless, travelling gnosis.
I had the privilege, a few years ago, of reading and writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education Brainstorm blog about several of the poems in “Map,” the first section of Lantern Puzzle. Interested persons can read these poems and learn more about Ye’s process (the “Map” series had its origins in a visual art project, and one of Ye Chun’s “map” paintings accompanies the commentary) by visiting the earlier essay. Ye’s “map” poems — each evoking a particular place by pairing a “latitudinal” strophe of associative “traces” with a “longitudinal” list-like stanza of related notes and jottings — can be situated in relation to Lantern Puzzle, and the twin impulses of the map sequence (to hold moments, however briefly, and at the same time surrender them to the ravishment of time, of vanishing) are reconfigured in poem after hauntingly beautiful poem throughout the second book. Here is “The Day of Cold Food”:
Twenty-six hundred years ago, Jie Zitui cut
a slice of flesh from his leg
to feed the starving Prince Chong’er.
Under the moon, the meat
looked like a piece of turquoise.
Fireflies bulbed off and on.
A skyful of stars waited.
My grandfather left for the war
just after his wedding, only saw
my grandmother’s face at seventeen.
A twirl of air once was a village
with salt and piglets.
Light like cobwebs, like vines.
Children in white shirts place paper flowers
on the tomb of the martyrs —
White flowers hang on bones, rustling.
Cultural and personal histories, cosmologies, mythologies, rituals, places real and imagined — all turn into one another everywhere. The poems are full of hungry ghosts; they are themselves hungry, and their very particular beauty derives from this answerless desire. The poems are “lantern puzzles” — hearts, webs, paper orbs, language acts that are at once ephemeral and tensile, lit from within, bodily and mysterious, as in “Three Moons Make a Season”:
I used to stand before lantern puzzles.
Now my window is too low for the moon,
my window with the sound of trains.
Cinnamon grove pressed on mooncakes
And pomelo cut in twelve
are for people in the yellow space.
In my stomach
migrant workers hammer and saw;
the houses they build remain empty.
In “Charms and Riddles,” Northrop Frye explores two lyric origins: “charm” — carmen (song, music, spell, incantation) and “riddle” (“to read” — as in ciphers, acrostics, puzzles, concrete poetries, all with “pictorial affinities”). A couple of points that Frye makes in this essay relate strongly to the work of Ye Chun and her lyric “puzzles.” Charms and riddles, he says, “illustrate the fact that literature, with its combination of rhythm and imagery, is intermediate between the musical and the pictorial arts” and that
Riddle, in particular, illustrates the association in the human mind between the visual and the conceptual. What is understood must, at least metaphorically, be spread out in space: whatever is taken in through the ear has to form a series of simultaneous patterns (Gestalten) in order to be intelligible.
The image of a lit lantern streaming down a river (“We set lanterns on water,” the poet writes in “The Seventh Moon is for the Hungry Ghosts”) is a presiding and provocative figure for this poet in this book, gliding through shadows, pitched in the liminal country of loving and leaving.
What is perhaps even more pertinent, I think, in Frye’s piece, to both the work of Ye Chun and Rae Armantrout, is his meditation on Mallarmé’s postulation that “the poet does not name or point, but describes the mood evoked by the object [suggesting] a method of riddle-writing without guessing.” In the typical riddle there is an implied question of which the guess is the answer. But, Frye writes:
An answer to a question accepts the assumptions in the question, and consequently consolidates the mental level on which the question is asked. This is adequate for information, where we simply want to stop or neutralize the question. But in religion, in philosophy, in science, all answers wear out sooner or later, because these subjects keep growing and expanding through a series of better formulated questions.
This ability to go in “quest of” without, to paraphrase Keats, an irritable reaching after any one answer, is a gift these poets share and which amply contributes to the staying power, originality, and importance of their second books.