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 oscillate
or three dimensions?
Would I summon
and change chirality
'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
God is impatient
without really knowing
what He wishes
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
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'
but we all
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
and we burst
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,
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
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.