No illusions


Itself
, Rae Armantrout (97pp, £16.22, Wesleyan)


Rae Armantrout's work has a spareness and an intensity which is rare in contemporary poetry. The typical Armantrout poem consists of around 20 short lines, some just a single word. These lines are often, though not always, divided into sections, separated by an asterisk or numbered. The text fragments may be connected, or they may have only a tangential relation. It is the juxtaposition of the different elements within the poem which makes Armantrout's work fascinating. Her strength lies as much in what is implied as in what is stated: 'skirting/the edge of//what can,/could have been//meant' as she says in 'Poem.'

The themes addressed in this new collection will be familiar to anyone who knows her work. Armantrout has long been fascinated by modern science, and the opening poem of Itself
takes the sub-atomic universe as its subject. 'Chirality', the title of the poem, refers to the way in which some asymmetrically structured chemical compounds can exist in forms that are mirror images of one another. The text poses questions about what scientific understanding implies for our sense of who we are. The behaviour of molecular structures also functions as a metaphor for lived experience.

   If I didn't need
   to do anything
   would I?

   Would I oscillate
   in two
   or three dimensions?

   Would I summon
   a beholder

   and change chirality
   for “him”?

'Home', employs a similar trope to convey the restiveness which characterises human consciousness: 'we depend/on the restlessness//of all that we don't see/for warmth.' Here the chemical processes which constitute our metabolism literally warm us. At a psychological level 'restlessness' is being alive. Or as another poem, 'Material', expresses it:  'For us to consist/of infinitesimal points//of want/and not//makes a lot of sense.'

In 'Occurrence', Armantrout presents this idea of our essential 'restlessness' with characteristic humour:

   If we are made in God's image
   God is impatient
   without really knowing
   what He wishes
   would occur.

Armantrout picks up material from marketing copy, television shows, overheard conversation. She deconstructs isolated phrases in ways which challenge the simplistic narratives popular culture offers as ways of explaining our lives. The breeziness of computer messages, conversational clichés, and the inanities of advertising are an entry point into questions about the way we construct 'meaning'.

Her work consistently tests the sense in which we can speak of a 'self', of an 'I'. She draws on linguistics, neuroscience and psychology in her poetry, mounting a conscious challenge to 'self-obsession'. In the poem 'Expression' she says:

   but we all
   come down,

   to self-love,
   self-love which

   like a virus,

   has no love
   and has no self.

 In the poem 'Difference', she likens 'self-love' to a mirage, which would 'evaporate on contact.'

Armantrout is a caustic observer of contemporary culture, but she is more than this. A number of the poems in Itself
are about relationships, in particular those of aging couples - the compromises, the habits, the unspoken tensions. 'Fall' opens with an image of insects buzzing around summer flowers. There's then an exchange between a couple, one of whom has had a fall, though they are 'not old yet.' They laugh over the incident. The poem hovers between denial and a tacit recognition of physical aging: 'This routine's/not empty.//It spells out/zero's location//in code' - 'routine' having the sense of a comic skit. The final section reads:

   Just like that
   we're tickled

   and we burst
   open, 

   releasing drones

That enigmatic last word is both the sound of their laughter and the sound of insects, recalling the opening image, with its suggestion of flowers turning to fruit and eventually bursting. The title refers to a fall, and to autumn, and decay.

Occassionally Armantrout departs from her normal procedures and does something unexpected. In this collection we have a witty re-working of Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 3. This was her contribution to Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare
, edited by Sharmila Cohen and Paul Legault, in which 154 poets were each asked to respond to one of Shakespeare's sonnets (Nightboat Books, 2013.) Her clever spinoff from the original is a gem.

Armantrout refers to this sonnet in two other poems in Itself
. In 'The Pull' she likens the bard to a 'ventriloquist's dummy' telling us 'the young and beautiful/should breed.' Later in 'Exit row' we're asked whether we 'believe/in reproduction?' Do we believe 'we' live on in our children? Armantrout's clear-eyed intelligence would reject any such comforting illusion.

This is Rae Armantrout's twelfth book. It is as strong as anything she has produced to date, full of acute observation, wry humour, and humanity.

     © Simon Collings 2015