First reading of Rae Armantrout's 'Spin' (1)
We are pleased to publish the first of five first readings of Rae Armantrout’s poem “Spin,” collected in Money Shot (Wesleyan, 2011). The text of the poem appears below. It happens that Armantrout’s PennSound page includes a recording of her performing the poem: here is that recording. Jennifer Ashton teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2005) and edited The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry since 1945 (Cambridge, 2013). Her most recent article, “Poetry and the Price of Milk,” on the politics of contemporary poetry, can be found on nonsite.org, where she is a founding member of the board. She is currently at work on a new book, “Labor and the Lyric.” — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
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First reading of “Spin,” by Jennifer Ashton
First: “That,” “which,” “which,” “which.”
Next (glancing quickly down to the last word of the poem): “That” … “there.”
I think to myself, the two together are like an answer to a question. “Which?” “That there.” The combination of the first word and the last forms a phrase that is strikingly idiomatic.
* * *
The email inviting me to participate in this exercise arrived while my husband and I were having a drink in a restaurant bar before meeting a friend for dinner (as it happens, the poet Roger Reeves).
JA: This should be fun. Look, the poem starts with “that” and ends with “there.” So it’s like the whole poem is a way of saying “That there!”.
WBM: Hugh Kenner used to call that the Jane cord. He said you could learn something about any text by looking at the first and last word.
JA: The Jane chord? Is that a real thing? How’s it spelled?
WBM: J-A-N-E. It was invented by Jane Brakhage — the wife of the Canadian filmmaker Stan Brakhage.
JA: What about “chord”?
JA: Oh, “cord” like a string or a rope —
WBM: Yes, because it stretches from the beginning to end of the poem and it’s like the whole poem hangs on it, like it’s strung along a wire. Wait, what did you think it was?
JA: I was thinking “chord” with an “h.” Like the first and last word are the opening and closing notes from the poem, hit at the same time, as if you were listening to them being played together.
WBM: I never saw it written down, but I’m pretty sure it’s “cord” with no “h.” [Picks up phone, types in “brakhage jane cord.”] Nothing much comes up.
JA: What if you include ”Kenner”? Did you try typing “chord” with an “h”?
WBM: [Types “kenner,” adds an “h” to “cord.”] Here’s something, a letter from Hugh to Bill Buckley. It says “you calculate it by combining the first and last words of ‘any book by any mortal,’ and if it is ‘a book worthy of human veneration these words combined will state the book’s quality in a phrase.’”
JA: So it is “C-H-O-R-D.”
WBM [reluctantly]: I guess so — if that’s how Hugh spells it in the letter. I’d sort of like to see the actual letter. I still can’t quite believe it. Ever since Santa Barbara, I’ve had this image of the poem strung along a wire and that was the cord.
JA: But even though “cord” and “chord” with an “h” are totally different, it’s actually not all that different if you’re just thinking about how the two words work for the poem. Oh, there’s Roger [my “first reading” will have to wait].
* * *
I start where I left off: “That,” “which,” “which,” “which” and “That” … “there!” Now I also see that two of the “which”s are paired with “nonetheless.” I also notice another vertical stack of three (“hit”) along the left margin in the section below.
So I glance again at the “which”s in the first section and notice the repetition of “dimension”-based words at the beginning and ending of the section: “That we are composed / of dimensionless points” and “which is a mapping of dimensions.” Taken together with the two intervening segments (“which nonetheless spin” and “which nontheless exist / in space”), it’s as if the first section offers up a framing or sandwiching device of sorts, with “dimension” words supplying roughly symmetrical top and bottom brackets, and the “which nonetheless” segments marking the roughly homogenous space between them.
Now I detect the homophonic pun, “mention,” contained in “dimensionless” and “dimensions.” I immediately think of the title of the poem, “Spin” (also notably repeated as the verb of the clause formed by the first “which”), and notice in the second section the pundit speaking of a candidate’s speeches (“The pundit says / the candiate’s speech / hit / ‘all the right points’”). The idea that the repetition of “dimension” might also be designed to invoke the noun or verb “mention,” with its associations of what is (or isn’t) said, hardly seems a stretch.
Now I realize that the poem’s first line begins with an assertion — “we are composed” — nonetheless “dimensionless,” and that we end the first section with a definition: “which is a mapping / of dimensions,” which in turn is subordinate to a subordinated clause. Heavily subordinated in fact, because it hangs on three earlier subordinate clauses. Moreover, the independent clause that should serve as the grammatical support of all four subordinate ones is nowhere to be found. Unless, that is, we read the poem’s title, “Spin,” as an imperative and treat it as an independent clause with an implied you as its subject and the first subordinate clause as its direct object: “[You] spin that we are composed / of dimensionless points …”
At this point, I still haven’t read the poem through, taking in every line.
Now, in doing so, I first hear its rhythms, multiple instances of the same stress pattern, vaguely anapestic (- / -- /): “that we are composed,” “dimensionless points,” “the candidate’s speech,” “hit / ‘all the right points’”, “’not hearkening back’”. The list even includes the last line of the poem (the stress placement might be ambiguous were it not for the italics of “there”): “and we say, ‘Look there!’” Considering that the second section of the poem contains the clearest reference to what we might call, based on the poem’s title, its subject matter (“spin” as in political campaign discourse), we can see how the poet’s establishment of this stress pattern works, by the end, to spin the reader’s ear into hearing things a certain way.
At the same time that I had been taking in the emerging rhythm of the poem in my first reading, some of my attention was drawn to the slant rhymes that operate in the first line of each section (“-posed,” “says,” “eyes”). At this point I want to go back to the beginning, to look for more aural and visual patterns, certainly, but now also to think about the relationship between the manifest subject matter of the poem in the second section (political “spin”) and its relation to the much more abstract workings of the first section, particularly the movement from “dimensionless points” to “a mapping of dimensions.”
But that would mean rereading.
And that would require further discussion. I find myself thinking about something one of my own graduate teachers, Allen Grossman, often said at the beginning of his seminars: “We are here to engage in a conversation. Poems, after all, are meant to be discussed.”
* * *
Rae Armantrout, “Spin”
That we are composed
of dimensionless points
which nonetheless spin,
which nonetheless exist
which is a mapping
The pundit says
the candidate's speech
“all the right points,”
hit “fed-up” but “not bitter,”
hit “not hearkening back.”
Light strikes our eyes
and we say, “Look there!”