TLS on Susan Howe and Rae Armantrout

David Wheatley, Nobody can bear to watch

23 September 2011

Susan Howe THAT THIS 112pp. New Directions
Rae Armantrout MONEY SHOT 92pp. Wesleyan University Press

In “Disappearance Approach”, the essay that forms the first part of her new collection, That This, Susan Howe sets herself the challenge of “Starting from nothing with nothing when everything else has been said”. The occasion for such an ascetic prescription is grief: Howe’s last book, The Midnight, elegized her mother, Mary Manning, and That This also has a death at its centre, that of her husband Peter Hare. While this intimate sadness is omnipresent in the book, it finds expression in both obvious and oblique forms. Howe is fond of arranging her collections in sonata-like contrasting movements, and here she adopts a tripartite structure, moving from diary-like prose in the first section to historical collage (assisted by scissors, Scotch tape and a photocopier) and short untitled lyrics. The result is a characteristically strange and unsettling volume.

Howe and her husband had both been previously married, and “Disappearance Approach” deals sensitively with the multiple past lives implicated in the bereavement the poet has suffered. Receiving a coroner’s report specifying that “the body is received with the eyes previously removed”, Howe responds indignantly, branding the antiseptic language a “failure of dream-work”. On visiting the cemetery where her husband’s ashes await her, she is informed by an official that “he knew Mr Hare had a wife, but I wasn’t her”.

The use of broken or crushed type is a favourite device of Howe’s (British readers may be reminded of Peter Reading), and is heavily exploited in Part Two, “Frolic Architecture”.

The symbiosis of the modern poet and the academy has long been an occasion of soul-searching among commentators who fear the latter’s corrupting influence; Howe, however, is a poet for whom the adventure of scholarship and the archive has been little short of exhilarating. Her occasional fretting over academic unworthiness is superfluous: if Howe fails the test of the poeta docta, it is hard to imagine who might pass. An early example of her work in this vein was My Emily Dickinson (1985), with its readings of Dickinson’s manuscript “fascicles”; here, her visits to the Jonathan Edwards archive at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library produce a series of opaque but compelling reanimations of the New England Puritan past. The third section returns us to the light again in a series of short lyrics building to statements of belief in the power of art as a place of salvage and commemoration: “Day is a type when visible / objects change then put // on form but the anti-type / That thing not shadowed”.

Readers sceptical of Language poetry may be late coming to the work of Rae Armantrout, but with the Pulitzer-winning success of Versed (2009) this distinctive writer has won an unexpected wider audience.

’”Why don’t you just say /what you mean?”’, someone asks in the title poem of Money Shot. Lucid in many ways as these poems are, it is never as easy as that, and “Why don’t I?”, the poet duly but non-committally answers. Coming straight from the Objectivist style sheet, Armantrout’s line breaks can take some getting used to, their stumpy quality insisting on disjointedness and fragmentation. The smallest connecting preposition or conjunction becomes matter for examination, inhibiting the freer flow of longer lines we find in her older contemporary C. K. Williams. The poet fills her work with teeming Brownian motion (“As if / the space around / each particle were filled / with countless / other particles”).

Language poetry likes to insist on the connection between the circulation of capital and the play of signifiers on the page, and Money Shot offers a portrait of the artist as a citizen of our consumerist empire of signs. “Starbucks prayer, /’Make morning good again’”, we read in “Answer”, a moment all the more touching for Armantrout’s resisting the temptation to flatten this corporate piety with a sarcastic riposte. This is not to say she cannot be outspoken or over the top when the occasion demands: her title, after all, conjures the information-overload of pornography, and in “The Gift” she corrects a misreading in humorously blunt terms (“You confuse / the image of a fungus // with the image of a dick / in my poem”). Another feature typical of Language poetry is its reluctance to endorse the cult of the poetic “I”. Money Shot deprecates originality (“Everything I know / is something I’ve repeated”) and prefers the rustles and rumours of a guiding sensibility to full-blown authorial presence. “I could say / ‘authenticity’”, she tells us in “Autobiography: Urn Burial”, but in the event she does not. Pondering our surveillance culture, she notes how “Security cameras / record each moment, but / nobody can bear to watch”. Where a mid-century existentialist might have agonized over the loss of private experience, Armantrout prefers to engage playfully with the opportunities offered by these new theatres of the self, beyond all Romantic concepts of aura and sincerity.

In some strains of contemporary poetry such as “flarf”, the will to impersonality involves recycling material from found sources and the detritus of popular culture and internet spam. A little of this can go a long way, and Armantrout’s work is distinguished by, among other things, a sense of economy and elegant precision. “So are we really moving?”, she asks at one point, the answer to which is certainly Yes: this is least of all hollowed-out, cold or inhuman work.

“Define possible”, Armantrout demands in “Staging”. Both Rae Armantrout and Susan Howe redefine poetic possibility in beguiling and rewarding ways.