Versed

A few years ago, John Ashbery was all the rage. It seemed as if he couldn’t get enough press. Now it seems that Rae Armantrout is next. Her poetry seems to be quite the opposite of Ashbery’ in style and poem-length, yet it demands a conscious, attentive reader. I like to think of myself as this type of reader, but Armantrout’s latest collection, Versed, eludes me.

In a poetry class at University College last summer, we studied “Dusk”:

spider on the cold expanse
of glass, three stories high
rests intently
and so purely alone.

I’m not like that!

I like the simplicity and efficiency of language. I like how the poem deals with shadows and sunset without any mention beyond the title, Dusk. I like the turn and the realization. So I explored some more of Armantrout’s poetry on poets.org and came across this poem:

Unbidden by Rae Armantrout

The ghosts swarm.
They speak as one
person. Each
loves you. Each
has left something
undone.

Did the palo verde
blush yellow
all at once?

Today’s edges
are so sharp

they might cut
anything that moved.

The way a lost
word

will come back
unbidden.

You’re not interested
in it now,

only
in knowing
where it’s been.

This poem struck me in a variety of ways, but what I enjoyed most was three dissociated images–a ghost, a tree, and a word–that are all united through mystery. (Side note: I didn’t know what a palo verde was…click on the link above for a picture.) All three of these instances demand understanding, but it isn’t there in the moment, and when that understanding comes, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I’m not sure I’d like to make that idea my life philosophy, but I’m intrigued by how the poem creates this idea. On the poets.org page, the publishing note mentioned that “Unbidden” appears in Armantrout’s latest book, Versed. Wow!, thinks me. A whole book of this type of thing. That would be fun! So I bought it, and read half of it. Yup, still waiting for the inspiration I was hoping to get from it.

As I said before, I like the idea of using objects that seemingly have no connections and finding a way to connect them. Yes, it can be called metaphor or conceit, but the poems never actually say they are connected. I’m forcing that on them (which may actually cause Armantrout or any other language poet to gag) because if there is no connection within these poems, then there are no poems. Go ahead and crucify me for this, but I’m not even peeking through the portcullis into the camp that strives for meaninglessness. There are 121 pages in this book, and I’m on page 103 or so. There are only two poems that I have been able to do anything with: “Address” and “Heaven”.

Address

The way my interest
in their imaginary
kiss

is secretly addressed
to you.

*

Without intention

prongs of ivy
mount the posts
supporting the freeway.

It would be possible to say
each leaf

circumscribes hope

or that each leaf,
fastidiously coming
to one point,

suggests a fear
of the unknown.

*

These glossy,
laced-up, high-heel boots

(each leaf)

addressed to you

This poem actually leaves (no pun intended) enough breadcrumbs to draw some connections for understanding. Because the first section is a sentence fragment, we don’t know if it’s completing an unknown preceding thought or acting as a poetic precursor for the rest of the poem. Either way, the poet says (without saying) that there is a connection to be drawn. Can it be done? There are four people presented in the first section: me, you, and their (I’m going to assume that there are two kissers). The you can either be a spouse/current lover or somebody outside the speakers current circle of intimacy. The speaker declares the kiss as imaginary–does that mean it’s a movie kiss? Are two people wanting to kiss but don’t have the opportunity? Is the speaker thinking about herself and someone else in a third-person sort of way?

We move to the second section with a disconnected image: ivy growing up a post. I think the three most important words/phrases in this section are “without intention,” “circumscribes hope,” and “a fear / of the unknown.” These words set the tone, build the walls around the mysterious foundation established in the first section. These ideas say, “It wasn’t on purpose, this growing of weeds. They kill hope, or at least cause fear.” So the ivy isn’t supposed to be there–this coming after an interest in a kiss–but is growing in ambiguity. And this whole time there is there growing upward, coming to a point.

The third and final section forces me to think that the ivy is lust, or an affair, or something along those lines. What other purpose than sex appeal do “glossy, laced-up, high-heel boots” serve? The speaker connects these boots to the leaves of ivy for the sake of getting the attention of “you.” Because of the secrecy presented in the first section, I can’t help but wonder if this address of infidelity. Why would boots kill hope? Is it hope of saving a marriage that’s too difficult , thus justifying the fear of this unknown rendezvous? Or could be over thinking things, and the poem could just be about trying to get someone’s attention, trying to delve into a relationship that doesn’t guarantee anything but wounds so you may as well be as sexy as possible. Either of these are potent issues in our American pop culture–whether it’s politicians, pastors, or athletes–as we see time and time again the dissolving of honest, loyal relationships.

The other poem that grabbed my attention is “Heaven”:

Heaven

1

It’s a book
full of ghost children,

safely dead,

where dead means
hidden,

or wanting
or not wanting

to be known.

2

Heaven is symmetric
with respect to rotation.

It’s beautiful
when one thing changes

while another thing
remains the same.

3

Fading redundancies.

Feathery runs.

Alternate wisps.

Imaginary

sprung striations.

“Imaginary” meaning
“seen by humans.”

Again, we have three independent sections under the umbrella of heaven. The first section establishes the speaker’s idea that heaven is a book–something tangible you can access at will, put away when you don’t need it; something that gathers dust and eventually ends up on the 25 cent table at a garage sale. But that’s not all. According to the speaker, heaven is a place where people are dead (or not) and hiding (or not). I wonder if she sees heaven as non-existent, contradictory, or man-made. This interpretation may hold weight in light of the second and third sections. I get the impression of a person explaining, “Oh, this is heavenly” in reaction to some positive change. This could be something as simple as the introduction of chocolate to the system, or something more complex like a great vacation, beautiful view, etc. It seems to me that the speaker suggests that the quality of heaven depends on the experience of an individual. The third section sums this all up with “redundancies,” “wisps” and “imaginary.” The use of the word “striations” suggests that heaven is simply in the imagination, or man-made. Is this Armantrout’s view of eternity or is it a critique of said view?

After reading other reviews of Armantrout’s poetry (this is a good close read), I am beginning to wonder if this collection is just an exploration of a humanistic, capitalistic, advertisement-driven American culture. Many of these poems make very clear pop-culture references, but beyond that, seem rather lost. Could it be that this book is just a few good poems surrounded with a hundred of advertising and distraction? Is this nothing more than watching television, surfing the web, downloading music, and watching Youtube? If so, the p-a crowd may be coming full circle as they try so hard to be new and relevant, but ending up in the same place as everybody else.

I think Armantrout’s poetry is successful as standalone, but it breaks down in larger collections. It’s like I bought a couple of poems for a great deal of $1.99, but I had to pay only $13.62+ for shipping and handling.

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