On World Poetry Day this year I’ve decided to spend some more time with Rae Armantrout’s poetry, for the benefit of many poetry lovers on WordPress and beyond. And for my own benefit too! Rae Armantrout’s writing truly has a spell on me—only it weaves around my thought processes in ways that so far I’ve mostly sensed rather than reached to grasp.
I’m having trouble telling why exactly that is. It’s probably because her writing is often pared down to short lines and sections in a way that allows each poem to have the beauty of a plant that exists within one moment in three different stages: as a flower, and a flower going to seed, and a seed head, much like the dandelions I wrote about the other day.
Part of what I mean by that is that there are connections pushing her poems forward, but at the same time, if you grasp it visually all at once each poem seems to be about several seemingly very different things—just like the dandelion flower and the dandelion clocks (with their parachute seeds), which are not easily recognizable as belonging to the same plant. The progression from a flower to a seed head is hidden in part because the fuzzy pappus is not easily visible when we’re looking at the composite flower head. And here’s another important point: if we look carefully, we see that the dandelion flower is in fact made up of many ray florets. Once we see those florets for what they are, individual flowers, and we notice the pappus at each floret’s base, we can make the connection between this pappus and the tuft of hairs that will help the seeds float away.
So when in “And” Armantrout writes about the words “tense and tenuous” in the first stanza of the first section of the poem, mentioning afterward that they “grow from the same root,” we could be surprised to find “spurious” in the second section, but then we realize that “spurious” is something that could be described as having a “tenuous hold on the truth,” for instance. And then what a beautiful way to end this poem: “while the spurious pours forth / as fish and circuses.” The spurious, in other words, is something elusive we don’t quite grasp, and something we humans turn into a circus. The Latin phrase “panem et circenses” also comes to mind, of course—“bread and circuses.”
In the prose poem “The Craft Talk,” short and sweetly startling and to the point(s), as are all the poems that have endeared her writing to me, she writes about “climb[ing] inside the machine that [is] language” and “feel[ing]” it, “steering only occasionally.” As it happens, when you choose one idea or one word and make a statement about it, that word, like “tenuous” above, will often choose its own sequel(s). In “And” that sequel was “spurious”—but then “spurious” too chose its own partner. That partner was “bogus”—which, Armantrout writes, should not be confused with “spurious,” because “The bogus / is a sore thumb,” it sticks out, whereas “spurious” is slippery like a fish: you latch onto it for a moment, but not long enough to realize its untruth(s).
Back to the “machine” that is language, you “climb inside [it],” Rae Armantrout writes, “not like a knight in armor exactly, not like a mascot in a chicken suit.” You don’t play language exactly but are exposed to its moves in a vulnerable way, aware that language has far more power over your motions through a poem than you do. You are aware that inside language, you—and then the reader—inhabit places of “uncertainty” where things can happen to move you—and then the reader—along in unexpected ways. What also strikes me in this overarching metaphor of a machine and of a “mascot in a chicken suit”—or a “knight in armor”—is how much inside language it shows poets to be, is how it shows poets to be so inside language, and also how blind poets can be to how they will eventually be perceived by readers looking at this machine from the outside. As Armantrout writes, “the best thing” is also for the reader to experience “an uncertainty as to where the voice she heard was coming from so as to frighten her a little.” It’s like looking at a dandelion puff ball. Where did all those feathery bristles, the pappus that now helps the seeds be carried by the wind, come from? We didn’t see the transformation coming because we didn’t see the pappus—it was hidden well inside the “machine” of the composite flower. And then in less than ten days to two weeks, a seed head is formed—and dispersed at a child’s blowing of an exhalation, which is a little frightening to watch: all that life floating away out of reach. “Why should I want to frighten her?” Armantrout writes in her ending to “The Craft Talk.”
Encountering a poem such as those by Rae Armantrout is much like wondering over a plant like the dandelion. Admittedly, dandelion is a common plant, and Armantrout’s poems are more sophisticated. But as we interact with each of her poems we travel along a nexus of meanings. Each node of meaning is like a dandelion flower blossoming into a puff ball, leaving us in a place of uncertainty as we untangle the connections. And then each poem on the whole is another journey of transformation from flower to seed head. Armantrout’s poems, like the best of poetry, are circuits of discovery. They come round upon themselves, and they also open their arms wide to the reader. And when you think you’re done parsing them—embracing them—for the time being, you find you have gathered in your hands new seeds for reflection, each of them tied to a parachute that will take you to further unexpected places.
To a happier, healthier life,