Between the hardly real and the barely there

Rae Armantrout's 'Conjure'

“Perennial,” 2019, North Cascades, WA. Photo by Tony Beeman.



Rae Armantrout

Wesleyan University Press 2020, 135 pages, $15.95 ISBN 978-0819579973

How can anyone engage with language in an essential way now? The numbness brought on by the language of politics and advertising — one that the Language writers of the 1970s and ’80s sought to quell — has been compounded by global capitalism, a ravaged planet, social media, and the rest of the internet’s anesthetizing algorithms. And yet it’s as if Rae Armantrout moves through the world in just this essential way, experiencing language in its most elemental, and often absurd, form: “Would you like the ability / to add a location / to your tweets?”[1] She seems to refuse the heuristics the rest of us adopt, those mental shortcuts that subtly grant permission to all manner of cyber-commerce we’re immersed in — or at least, she’s bearing witness: “My screen claims / I have ‘new memories.’”[2] But even as she engages with an evolving language increasingly polluted with techno- and social jargon and dystopian culture, even as her poems are populated with photobombing and zombies, Armantrout never shies from having something hefty to talk about. She has earned her reputation as an outstanding Language writer whose work attests to a singular mind taking on subjects of formidable substance.

Armantrout is a philosopher’s poet, and her new collection, Conjure, is a paragon of her bare language in search of bare truths (often by way of physics) dotted with her signature irreverence. Her central metaphysical preoccupations endure, but she keeps her readers roused, sometimes through acknowledgment and direct address: “You’ve heard it before / or something like it. // The familiar is enormous! // Red-shifted” (3). Her work stays fresh in part because she tracks current scientific research, so that, for instance, she might frame her abiding fascination with the mind in terms of intelligence studies (both natural and artificial). And yet (or it may be due to her continued predilection for science) her work has moments of profundity that might be centuries old: “The puma sits behind / her own eyes / only — // so some say / she has no mind” (129).

Physics is a discipline of subtle concepts rife with potential for distortion, but Armantrout never cheats. While we’re all bound to be unsettled by certain aspects of relativity and quantum mechanics, she does not settle for the lazy takeaways that a casual outsider might run with. She takes physics seriously as a method of inquiry, even as she maintains her skepticism and sense of humor. When she interrogates the language of physics, the outcome can be a playful seesaw of claim and doubt. Here is palpable frustration in part one of “Natural Histories”:

Since the irrational
“because I said so”

they’d had their differences:

color that isn’t really
color, spin
that isn’t spin

because attitude’s
when it has no content.

Ask a physicist
what “charge” is;

he’ll say your question
makes no sense. (25)

The conceptually misleading labels we have for quarks may fall into some definite category for functional linguists, but they are vexing terms nevertheless: What point-like thing “spins”? On what axis? Certainly “color” is impossible in this realm. And for quarks we have the hybrid animal “color charge.” Even if one accepts that these properties have more to do with physicists’ calculations than any recognizable features, one feels there ought to be an answer — other than a number — for what these properties are. What makes one property different from the other, for instance? We want an answer in plain English, and it is simply not available. And, setting aside quarks’ “color charge,” this bothersome language problem pervades the entire invisible world of physics: even the familiar positive and negative electric charges, a physicist might tell you, are merely labels, and could have been called “silver” and “tiny” instead (and everything would have turned out the same way). But one with a probing mind is still apt to ask, “So they’re merely labels, but for what?” To refer to electric charge — positive and negative — is a convenient way to describe certain interactions, but it’s harder to define one except in terms of the other. As to the properties of quarks, they also ultimately amount to ways to describe interactions, and it would seem that at least a few equations and diagrams and years of formal study are required to answer these questions properly (that is, to a physicist’s satisfaction, but would that answer satisfy the poet?). There always seems to be some language evasion in physics, even when the language begins with precision (even Newton, who provided so much clarity defining mass mathematically, called it “a quantity of stuff”). In the end, Armantrout’s physicists offer us a “because I said so” ontology, one she might accept — at least provisionally — as she says a few lines up: “attitude’s / best / when it has no content.” Which feels right. And very Cheshire cat.

But Armantrout doesn’t position herself only as a physics outsider. She identifies with the enterprise. She does her research, but she also gets physics. If ever a poet captured the poignancy of the particle physicist’s deepest desire, it happens in the first section of “Petard”:

We hoped to see things as they are
by which we meant without us.

We thought once we stripped away
smell, taste, color —

anything improper —

leaving only location
and number,

the thing
would be naked

on the teeter-totter
of an equation. (130)

Armantrout’s “we hoped” and “we thought” are potentially heartbreaking, as the past tense makes plain that something didn’t work out quite as we expected. It seemed a simple enough project, carried forward in a direct line from Francis Bacon’s 1620 Novum Organum: by strictly adhering to method, we could remove our human biases (including our tendency to invoke a deity at every turn) and come ever closer to an understanding of nature. So naturally, “things as they are” increasingly meant things “without us,” and this manner of thinking was exceedingly effective for physicists for several centuries. Armantrout exploits the poetic line so that “the thing” is made bare — she has taken us to the edge of existence by stripping away all properties except perhaps location and number (“anything improper”). This is exactly where we have said the physicist wants to be — where “spin” means a number and “color” means (pretty much) another number. What does happen there, where the thing is naked “on the teeter-totter / of an equation”? One version of the story involves the bargain, or the bet, that physics made: if we resist invoking god, in the limit, might we actually encounter god? After all, we have just entered its empty space.

The story I’m telling is intensely serious and possibly mournful, but in Armantrout’s deft hands, it starts to sound funny. Or weird, anyway. She appreciates the physics project but invites us to lighten up. We are odd animals, and we managed to create this formally symbolic discipline to describe all manner of phenomena removed from our everyday experience. It was bound to yield the unexpected; to achieve the vantage we wanted, exactly how high did we imagine we could launch ourselves? The remainder of the poem ties this to a second version of the joke: “Then Archimedes / told another one. // If I had a long enough lever / and a fulcrum, // I’d get a high / resolution image // of objectified bodies / and hoist myself // on my own petard” (130).


If readers do not hear but overhear poems, Armantrout is a poet who incorporates overhearing into the medium: language often feels indirect, coming in scare quotes or as bits of found text or conversation without comment. Her editorial presence sometimes manifests only in her juxtaposition of one puzzle piece with another. Yet she can also be personal and direct with the reader, exploring the elusive self, the sexy pursuit of that moving target, and a deity that confounds — all while the poet thwarts interpretation. The result is hilarious:

You’re a person
the way a whirlpool

is a mood
of waters, a certain


a hard suck
on nothing

that pulls itself


“I am that I am,”
God says,

meaning existence
is tautology.

Don’t ask. (46)


It happens that a committed, reductionist, materialist approach to existence leads us inexorably to fleetingness, to instability, to strangeness. Armantrout cites Carlo Rovelli, a quantum loop gravity theorist, in “The New Economy,” exploring the possibility he raises that “there are no / separate things, ‘only relations’ // between the hardly real / and the barely there, // spots where / apprehension tangles” (60). Okay, so physics has undone our intuitive model for the world of objects, but it doesn’t stop there: time itself needs revision. In “Made Short,” she begins:

Like us, the quanta
spend most of their time

in limbo

where time isn’t

and there is nothing
to acquire

until nothing
sends them flying

and they get
realized. (116)

Rovelli writes that time does not pass for quanta. Put another way, in the quantum realm, the most basic realm we can (but can we?) comprehend, “time” has no meaning. Because equations describing the grains of space no longer contain the variable “time,” Rovelli tells us, “elementary processes cannot be ordered in a succession of ‘instants’” and ultimately, “there is no longer space that ‘contains’ the world, and there is no longer time ‘in which’ events occur.”[3] In short, there really is no there, and now, we know there is no now. Elsewhere, Armantrout enacts a consciousness trying to triangulate between ordinary language (coming again in scare quotes) and Einstein’s claim that time itself is a “stubborn illusion”: “So this was / ‘the fullness of time’” (36).

Like the quanta, we are essentially waiting“until” we “get / realized.” This passive “getting realized” recalls Armantrout’s ars poetica in the title (and opening) poem of the collection, the tension between the poet’s desire to somehow conjure and not be the conjurer:

All I want
is not to be

first on one side,
then the other,

but to conjure
a stream

of sounds and images
for which I am not

responsible. (1)

I interrupt here. So far, it would seem the poet wants her universe to be “conjured” in the roundabout way our universe came into being. As modern physics currently describes it, it was no more than a hiccup in the vacuum that preceded space and time. Importantly, in this description, there is no creation moment: our universe is entirely contingent. All that we dread and hold dear, an accident. The passivity of a poem being conjured — is this the poet’s desire, to summon a made thing, apparently without a maker? But her characteristic punctuation complicates the desire. Here is that last part, through to the end:

for which I am not

and maneuver within it —

mouth and tail
one thought.


The sea, now full
of cannibal

jellies, blue
if the sky says so (1–2)

This notion of responsibility or authorship for what her mind conjures is not new. “The Wait,” from an earlier collection, recounts the “awkward animals” of (after)thought: feelings, paired with shapes. Some are produced in dreams and others occur when she is awake: “but for that, of course, / I am not responsible.”[4] Poetry as a dream, then? (The dreamer in this discussion inventing nothing in her dream?) Armantrout has been a vigilant dream-observer in her poetry, evidencing an almost detached interest in that state of consciousness (she wonders who narrates her dreams, and “where is she / when I wake up?”).[5] “The mind in the dream, / though one of its creatures, / may be incredulous, // may think this / can’t be happening” (93).

Armantrout is self-aware, and more than that, she seems to be conscious of a divorce between the generation of a thought and the phenomenological experience of occupying a thinking being, as if she intuits what cutting-edge consciousness research tells us about the illusion of cognitive authorship. This is an idea she returns to frequently: “flash — / like getting an idea // was the idea” (13). She attempts to objectify her own mind, as mandated by a strictly materialist enterprise (a poet is an atom’s way of looking at herself). But here, above all, we can never separate the observer from the observed. Here the dreaming, or at least dreamy, mind meets the fulcrum meant to hoist us to full comprehension. And, just as for physicists the thing was “naked // on the teeter-totter / of an equation,” in a different poem she has a vision of her own slippery guises, “as if in a dream, // see that I’m naked / and cover myself // in a likeness, / oh Lord” (19).

And besides, she’s funny as hell. She punctuates her philosophical poetry with confident and cheeky one-liners like, “Don’t be mad” (20) and “Is that supposed to scare me?” (27). She never forgets her readers, and she keeps them emotionally involved. In “Tandem,” Armantrout brings together physics, this intimacy with the reader, and this mystery of conjuring:

In the beginning,

there was cremation. No,
in the beginning was a tandem

jiggling of fields.
I sort of liked it.

Mostly I wanted to know
what else

was in that bag —
like it was bottomless,

if I’m like you. (56)

1. Rae Armantrout, Wobble (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2018), 92.

2. Rae Armantrout, Conjure (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2020), 84.

3. Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015), 44.

4. Rae Armantrout, Itself (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2015), 44–45.

5. Armantrout, Wobble, 33.