Friday, May 22, 2009

A Swoon for . . .

Rae Armantrout’s “Sway”

Sometimes still in this age of instant round-the-world Internet publishing, the old-fashioned hard copy print journal, delivered by the post office (after being paid for via check snail-mailed to the publisher), remains a great treat.

Earlier this week the new issue of the Denver Quarterly (Volume 43, Number 3 (April 2009)) arrived. I’d bought it for the interview of and a couple of prose poems by John Olson. But of course there’s lots else: more than two dozen writers, mostly poets.

The first thing I saw when I opened the mailing envelope was the magazine’s back cover. In a lovely touch, that cover is entirely given over to a single new (previously unpublished) Rae Armantrout poem, titled “Sway.” Here’s the back cover with the poem (please note: in the scan, the black on the cover’s border has been inelegantly trimmed, for which I apologize; also, please click on the image to enlarge it in a new window, so as to better read the poem):

Well, the oddest god damn thing happened when I read “Sway” (which is also currently available in its entirety – click here – on the Denver Quarterly website): the last half of the poem – the second of its two sections – somehow instantly imprinted itself in my memory. I read it, and – justlikethat – knew it by heart.

That, I feel, is a sign of something special. Do you believe in love at first sight, for a poem?

I do.

I swooned, and hard, for “Sway.” And still swoon for it. Here’s why:

I love the concision and density of the poem. It has fourteen lines, all but three of which are three words or shorter. The longest line has five words. As for the density within this concision, please read on – or just read the poem (or read it again) – to see how much is in it.

Then there’s (please listen closely here, I’m trying to lower my voice) the silence in “Sway.” The relatively short lines, and the double spaces between certain lines, make for lots of white space, which I “hear” as silence. I also particularly hear a pin-drop silence – or is it (might as well haul all the cliches out of the closet here) a waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop silence? – following the bold two-line assertion that ends the poem.

And of course I love especially the entire last half of the poem, the part which imprinted immediately on my memory. The marvels in these lines are many. The first four lines of the section set out double-image, or image-within-an-image, that’s simple, concise, and beautiful:
A slender whirlpool

momentary poppy,

over a drain
These lines are straightforward: the main image is the now-here, about-to-be-gone “slender whirlpool” that “sways / over a drain”. And within that image, another: “momentary poppy”.

That latter image surprises at first, and even seems wrong. What the heck is a flower doing with the water above a drain? But thinking it out, dang if the image doesn’t fit just right. The poppy flower – at least here in California – resembles water whirling down a drain, especially when looked at from above just as it opens, with its overlapping petals that collectively narrow towards the flower’s bottom. The California poppy also opens and closes each day with the sun – assuming of course the sun is out – and so it in that way also echoes the evanescence of water (and of every moment we live) as it swirls away.

This juxtaposition of images is done without the typical apparatus of a simile (e.g., using “as a” before “momentary poppy”). This direct presentation of the two images is cinematic. But more fundamentally, it’s brainy. And I don’t just mean smart, but “brainy” in the sense that it mimics or mirrors how the mind sometimes works. Thoughts sometimes do not proceed directly from start to end, but are interrupted by or layered with some other thought. And so it goes in these lines.

I also love “momentary poppy” in and of itself. The words kind of rhyme, or at least do so visually and in the mouth, what with their double bilabial consonants, o’s, y’s, and similarly structured first and last syllables. And, the word “poppy” although referring I think to the flower, also contains a connotation of a quick going away, as in the popping of a bubble. The word thus also suggests, or hints at, a here-now, now-gone vanishing, of the kind more explicitly denoted in the poem by the over-arching image of water whirling down the drain.

After the double image of the first four lines comes a shift, a major one. Omniscient descriptive imagery ends, and the poem’s final four lines contain three sentences of what seems to be first-person statements, of a quite direct kind:
Forget her.

She doesn’t love you.

You will never have
such grace.
The shift in approach and tone here creates great energy and drama. It’s as if a curtain is suddenly drawn back, revealing – given the import of the three statements – a very charged reality.

In addition to the direct and intimate content of the statements, energy comes from the particular sequence of pulse-rhythms (the time, the beats) of the lines. I count three, five, then seven syllables, respectively, in the three concluding sentences, with pauses (the double-spaces) between each. That pattern simply but effectively increases the “oomph” of the lines as the poem concludes (just as a basin of water, when the plug is pulled, seems to gather speed and strength as it drains away). The last sentence also has its own special energy. Broken into two lines such that there is visual (and thus, in reading, an audible) pause, the “such grace” of the final line comes down hard, with terrific finality, almost as if it’s a coup de grâce.

The last half of “Sway” – the eight lines set out above – can be read as concerning that point in an inter-personal relationship when it’s clear that it won’t happen, or can’t go on, although one person can’t let go. The whirlpool is a vortex: the down-drafting, disappearing relationship, and/or the emotions felt by the person who wants to avoid the loss; the poppy is that moment as well.

In this reading, the advice in the last four lines is assumed to be spoken by the voice of the poem (which may or may not be Armantrout) to an unnamed person. However, these lines need not be taken as spoken aloud; all or some them – say, for example the last sentence – could only be spoken internally, in the mind of the voice of the poem.

The advice of the voice in the poem – essentially, “move on” – is entirely sensible. But the poem’s last two lines make clear that the advice-giver (or perhaps it’s the internal voice of an observer who’s overheard the advice) believes the person being given the advice will never heed it. If so, I can – and maybe you can too – relate. It’s an entirely human predicament, one that’s been faced by many who have (to be cheap about it) lost at love and those who’ve seen and tried to help others who’ve struggled with unrequited love or who’ve tried to hold on to a relationship that’s done. The “grace” that the voice of the last part of the poem believes will never be had is not of course divine intervention, but the quality of being considerate and thoughtful, of accepting that (to extend the metaphors used by Armantrout) the poppy closes, that slender whirlpools vanish.

But the poem’s last half might also be read as being about matters other than inter-personal relationships. I’m not entirely sure about this, but what is certain is that the referents for the pronouns in the last four line are not definitively established. In the reading above, I assume that the “her” who should be forgotten, the “she” who doesn’t love, is former or potential lover, and the “you” is an unnamed wannabe (or former) lover of a woman.

But maybe the “she” and “her” refer not to some would-be or lost lover, but to something more abstract – for example, poetic inspiration – with the “you” read as the voice of the poem (again, let’s say Armantrout) referring to herself in the second person. The concluding statements, then, become an interior monologue in which creativity (the “she” or “her”) must be accepted as something that comes and goes, with the poet advising herself to give it a pass but then acknowledging the difficulty of walking away.

Writing it out here, this interpretation doesn’t seem that convincing, I admit. However, the dynamic regarding acceptance of that which is poised or bound to vanish does not just apply to situations which arise within inter-personal relationships. Given that truth, perhaps the last half of “Sway” could be read as an interior monologue in which the “her” that must be forgotten, the “she” that doesn’t love, is life itself, or the promise of such life, with the “you” being that part of ourselves, and/or the poet, considering the challenge of accepting that which we all must face: that at any moment, our lives – all life – is poised to vanish.


“Sway” also has a first-half, and for me the question is how its six lines relate to the second half of the poem that I’ve discussed above. Here’s the poem’s first half:
Caught up
in the leaf,


the carbon atom
gets a life--

but whose life is it?
These lines remain, even after repeated readings, a great mystery to me. I sense that “the carbon atom” entranced in the leaf, about which it is asked “whose life” it is, somehow relates to the stubbornness, or desire to assert control – to continue a relationship that is swirling down the drain – that I attribute to the “you” in the second stanza. But I can’t really articulate why I think that.

There’s also a hard science facet to “carbon atom,” maybe concerning the astounding ability of that particular atom to form a bond with other elements. But no, I can’t draw that out too far, and also don’t know whether it really relates much to the poem. Nor can I satisfactorily suggest much about the fundamental-as-all-get-out question (“whose life is it?”) that ends the first half of the poem, other than to guess that one answer may be that it is no one’s life: the world cannot be possessed or controlled by anything or anyone.

But again, I just don’t know. And that’s not only okay, but great. As I’ve written before (and to borrow again the title of the old-time radio show), I Love A Mystery. Not knowing fully or exactly what’s going on in “Sway”– to guess at answers to some of the riddles in the poem’s first half, to have no firm conclusion regarding who or what the pronouns of the second half refer to and what voice or voices are heard in the last four lines of that section – will keep me coming back to the poem.

In short, the multitude of possibilities, the absence of a certain interpretation, keep the poem alive. Those qualities are a strength, for as Armantrout has written (italics in original):
it’s all right to be unsure. There’s something powerful . . . in not being quite certain of what you’re seeing. Is there something in that shadow? This is often how we experience the world, why shouldn’t it be how we experience a poem?


The quotation from Armantrout that ends the post is from “An E-Mail Interview with Rae Armantrout by Eric Elshtain & Matthias Regan,” included in her Collected Prose (San Diego: Singing Horse Press, 2007). The quotation can be found at pages 96-97 therein.

The current issue of Denver Quarterly includes five additional poems by Armantrout. A copy of the magazine can be obtained by sending a check for $10.00 to Denver Quarterly, University of Denver, Denver, CO, 80208. It might also be found in bookstores, though I couldn

The title of Armantrout’s poem – and this is idiosyncratic, so thank you for indulging me – reminds me of a gorgeous, dreamy instrumental tune, also called “Sway,” by the psychedelic surf trio, the Mermen (the song was written by Jim Thomas, the group’s guitarist). To hear a beautiful version of the song, please click here, then scroll down the song list (at the upper right side of the page at to Track 19 -- “Sway” -- and click there to play.



person said...

dear fama,

we enjoy yr

we encourage u
2 kick a lil hermetic free-


which we think u would like

spread (like fire)

thee word.


u r know
on not-



Steven Fama said...

Thanks person / us for stopping in, the kind words on my style-a, and the encouragement on the poem-book you mentioned.

One of the privileges I'm currently lucky to have is that I work within walking distance from Small Press Distribution (it's a bit less than a mile away). I can sometimes walk over during lunch. And when I next do, I'll take a look a Morpheu, as I do believe SPD has it in their warehouse.

Vance Maverick said...

While enjoying this, I found it easiest to interpret the poem as referring to one subject throughout -- the provisional quality of (organic and emotional) life.

Staying at the level of paraphrase: a plant (such as a poppy) is made of atoms, of course, but not statically: it's taking up atoms from its environment and releasing them throughout its life. A given carbon atom belongs to that life for an interval -- but whose life is it? (And is it just one, countable life?)

Similarly, a thing like a flower arises and disperses during a brief interval of the draining of a sink. It's composed of air and water, or of the interface between them -- but again, to what extent can we really consider it an entity, a singular life?

Agree with your metaphorical reading of the extension; the analogy it invites may be between (on the one hand) either the beloved or the relationship, and (on the other) the flower or the vortex, or the volume of water being swirled away, or (maybe) the carbon atom.

Think also of "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower"....

Steven Fama said...

Thanks much Vance, for writing up some of your thoughts. I liked how two of your paragraphs ended with question marks, sort of acknowledging the uncertainty, in a way. I'm not sure about the Dylan Thomas line . . . but then again, I see how it came to mind.

Vance Maverick said...

Yeah, I don't quite endorse the Thomas, but the image of flower as process stuck with me. How about Williams' "The Rose"? Similar extrapolation of the form into space.

Lemon Hound said...

Nice work here Steven.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks, Lemon H., for the kind words.

And Vance M., a link to anything from Spring and All is always welcome here! WCW's rose (imagined, or seen in copper or on a plate) is more elaborated by a factor of 10 or 15 compared to the poppy in "Sway," but I understand, I think, what you mean by the form extrapolated into space in both.