Laboratories of rhetoric
On Rae Armantrout's 'Just Saying'
Rae Armantrout’s 2013 book Just Saying, a phrase that calls into question the veracity of what we say, think, and feel to be the case, or a phrase used to offload the force of an insult, suggests a motif of our inability or refusal to render our systems of thinking and believing in convincing terms. To be sure, the poems are varied in their address, circling around domestic concerns, mortality, social codes, product placement, forms of transactions, and systems of belief. One of the moves that Armantrout makes so well is to channel the many-tongued voicings of the clichéd-chorus. In the cacophonous, hyper-mediated Internet age, in the postrecession capitalism of America, in the images reflected back to us from the culture industry, Armantrout’s poems take on the bricolage of heterogeneous language acts and recast them to render new systems of meaning. It is in this recasting that poetry can be thought of as an instrument to not only document our present conditions on the ground, but to refigure those conditions, to see them anew.
Armantrout’s poems are characteristically short, and usually advance through precise, almost Dickinsonian lines, where prolixity is skillfully trimmed down to reveal taut and muscular lines and stanzas: minimal words, maximum weight. But unlike Dickinson, Armantrout works in sections, either numbered or broken by an asterisk. The effect, while multiple, is often to destabilize the poem and allow it to disrupt expectations of a coherent, discrete speaking subject. The instability always feels generative, constantly allowing for surprising correspondences.
To cast another metaphor, Armantrout’s poems perform like miniature dragnets, dredging the sediment of our personal and collective social constructs out into the open, where they are assembled and made to speak in disjunctive tongues. In this way, Armantrout's many-voiced approach reveals a rigorous poetic practice of allowing voices, images, ideas, to play out in constant tension and counterpoint.
This productive tension is delivered through the use of sections or breaks, allowing for a word, idea, subject, sense, feeling to be explored through shifting angles of report and inquiry. This move, through repetition, almost develops an argument, as if to say: we are going to see what will happen by taking a look at this phenomenon, by changing the terrain and language practices around which it is understood. This gesture highlights, in a way, how knowledge or ways of knowing is partial. It is one side of the story, but within the stories, language emerges as a form of power, as a mechanism for framing. As Armantrout understands, language comes before us; we are at the mercy of what’s available. In the penultimate poem of the book, “Hymn,” we read:
To put one over
One is everywhere
into branching again
“Glory be to him,”
that can’t quite dissolve
Collapse on cue.
Praise Sisyphus. (100)
The opening of the poem imagines, abstractly and in a slightly mocking tone, the act or the proposition of being deceived. We might surmise this opening comment suggests the hymn as a song of devotion and praise to a God. A hymn is both thing and action, generally sung in unison by a congregation of fellow believers. In a way, the first section of Armantrout’s “Hymn” presents a thesis on the hymn as a thing, something passed down through generations, as mass deception masked in the third-person singular of one. The following sections echo, extend, and refocus this thesis, recasting the action or thing in new terms. We move from the general to the concrete, as if the poem were making an argument. And within this movement, the poem asks the reader to consider the singular as a more extensive, all-pervading phenomenon which I read as a kind of critique of almost unconscious repetition on both an individual and collective level, as in the last line of the poem: “Praise Sisyphus.” In a sense, the poem sees in repetitive performance a form of control: this act, whether the singing of a hymn or some other collective act, represents a larger activity of following consensus, as in the line “Collapse on cue.” But it’s the form of the poem that enables the reader to participate in the process of making meaning. The jump-cut effect of the section breaks asks the reader to stop and consider the parts in relation to the whole.
Armantrout’s sections, whether numbered or indicated by an asterisk, produce what I call a trampoline effect. That is, instead of my eyes descending down the page, breaks in the continuity of the poems send me back, as if the stanzas were playing tricks on my eyes. There’s a way to quickly read Armantrout’s poems, but something gets lost without constant attention. Her moves are slithery, oblique at times, and at other moments, the phrasing comes at a deceptively simple angle that delights, producing a dance for the intellect.
In the poem “Subdivision,” the first section reads: “In a horror movie / the dead eat the living; / while in reality / the living eat the dead” (31). This kind of role reversal, namely, horror film as a genre, follows a narrative formula, while in “reality,” this formula is reversed. The pairing, while simplistic, carries a depth of suggestion. The language is almost deadpan and reportorial, and on a basic level, the pairing of horror films with reality suggests a subdivision of pleasure and human behavior, or perhaps more subtly, human behavior as pleasure. We accept both as “natural” in their environments: what’s more, our pleasure in eating the dead takes on an eerie, blissful lack of awareness of the impact of such choices. Sure, we consume the dead as a matter of sustenance, but we often neglect to consider how the dead are bound to larger ecological systems. To see animals as merely dead for our own gastronomic pleasure highlights how we subdivide reality into parts. And we do this without much logical defense other than “it’s my right to eat whatever I want.” The last two sections of “Subdivision” read:
To matter (verb)
is to be
matter is that
You’ve been living
in a false
one composed of
This poem is characteristic for how it moves from the opening report on horror movies and reality to a play on the word “matter” — as something or someone that carries weight or significance — to how matter is the very material that constructs the world. The third section further extends the notion of subdivision by having the reader focus on a “you” being addressed. This “you” seems to have mistakenly been living without influence, but the poem suggests that we think of the preposition “of” as necessarily highlighting our adherence to parts of the world, whether they are persons, objects, or ideas. The poem ends with a comment on the assertion that “one composed of / ‘of,’” is “extensively subdivided.” We are told, in an open way given the lack of punctuation, that being subdivided is a quality that balances us, or at least gives us the appearance of balance. Any precise Armantrout poem allows us time and space to see words and ideas deconstructed so that the familiar can be reseen.
In 2001, Wesleyan University Press inaugurated its commitment as the home of Rae Armantrout’s twenty-first-century work Veil: New and Selected Poems, the first helping of Armantrout under the wonderful editorship of Wesleyan over the years. (They’ve also brought us the engaging work of Peter Gizzi, Elizabeth Willis, Kamau Brathwaite, Ed Roberson, Jack Spicer, and Brenda Coultas, among many notable others.) Veil marked, in a way, a poetic proliferation that has been followed by Up to Speed (2004), Next Life (2007), Versed (2009), Moneyshot (2011), and 2013’s Just Saying. (Itself was published in early 2015.)
It feels almost necessary (like a fresh breath of air) to have before me a new Rae Armantrout book every couple of years. Her work feels vital. It shows the workings of a mind willing to grapple with and recalibrate the bewildering experience of living in our young twenty-first century. I know this is a large claim, but it’s the breadth, seriousness, and intensity of her work that holds a reader. As a reader, I’m put in acute proximity with a mind that tells us in Just Saying: “I don’t like / the option / of zero wiggle room” (90). To the open eye and ear, the poems offer an intelligent cadence. Her poems are precisely sounded on the page, as in the poem “New Intelligence”: “Stars / are the campfires / of exiles. // Language exists / to pull things / close” (91). Here, we’re invited to imagine language as an instrument to put the world more under our nose. These stanzas bridge the distant and near. By bringing the earthly to bear on the ever more knowable sky above us, Armantrout also seems to suggest that the distant is often in a state of banishment; the distant object is distant precisely because it was coerced or persuaded. But language, and hence the poem, is a vehicle that enables new connections, and perhaps more to the point, reflexive action.
Armantrout’s poems are intimately aware that language is inherited, used, displaced, internalized, monitored, misappropriated, bound to the commonplace, and rendered a mass of dividing cells from which we fashion our experiences or define the experiences of others. Her poems are lyrics strained through a cheesecloth saturated with institutional and other kinds of jargon. Her poem, “Elements Of Blank,” reads in full:
You’re not selling the product
You’re selling commitment.
Somehow we know that the cover girl has just lifted her
head, looked into the lens by accident. Her light eyes
are those of a lion raising its head from a carcass. (Her
tousled blond hair reinforces this effect.) A moment ago,
it seems, she was absorbed in something all-consuming,
draining. Clearly, her gaze only appears to take us in.
Get them to opt out
of what’s available
apart from the experience
of our product.
To take flight is to make a decision which can’t be rescinded.
That in itself is enough to inspire fear. But it isn’t wise to show
weakness. Now our fate is bound by momentum to that of the
people around us, people we did not choose, would not have
chosen. We await the beverage tray. When it comes, we will
once again have a number of options. (49)
This poem, in a way, is representative of the shifting voices in Armantrout’s work. I hear a professor in an Introduction to Advertising course lay the groundwork for the inner workings of the formula for product placement. Another voice, perhaps a professor in a cultural studies department, unpacks the phenomenon of appearances in contemporary advertising photography. Elsewhere, I hear an advertising executive address her fleet of foot soldiers, getting them on board with the idea that an image of experience is finally what sells products. In this move, I hear the echo of a product not as object but as commitment. Suddenly, rhetoric merges. And finally, in the last section, I hear, say, a panel of life coaches discussing air travel as a hackneyed metaphor for stepping inside a situation outside one’s control. Within this experience, which it would be wise to bear, suddenly appear choices to counter the inalterable. “Make the best of the situation” emerges as an available cliché.
This confluence of voices, woven together and then dispersed, becomes a working laboratory for exploring experience as mediated by rhetoric and ways of doing business. At their best, Armantrout’s poems present identity in a similar way that we choose products in the market. From her title poem, “Just Saying”: “What I write / I write instead / of ivy” (11). What we’re left with is one choice instead of, or in place of, another. Within these choices, we’re hardly cognizant of how our opinions and actions make fluid, logical sense, much less offering a passionate defense of them.