Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Inter(rae)gator

Armantrout’s Questions

Rae Armantrout read in Oakland Friday night, at the monthly Studio One series in the Temescal neighborhood. For once, I kept paper and pen in my backpack and pocket, respectively, and just let the word-flow take me where it would.

As it happened, I keyed on, became absorbed by and then obsessed with, the questions Armantrout asked, explicitly, in the poems she read. My oh my how invigorating (do you feel it?) that was, and let me explain why.

I was primed, to say the least, to be hit hard by Armantrout’s questions. I went to the reading straight from the office, where I’d spent much time late Friday helping a co-worker prepare cross-examination for an upcoming evidentiary hearing. For close to a couple hours she’d asked me her questions, and we’d talked about what the questions were meant to do. Heading over to Studio One, my mind was a querl of queries.

So imagine my response – can you, please? – when the first poem read by Armantrout – “A Resemblance” (it’s found early in the first section of her Pulitzer-winning Versed) – began as follows:
As a word is
mostly connotation,

matter is mostly

Right out of the gate, that’s two questions (Armantrout when reading out loud indicates the questions just as any of us would, via inflection on the last word or syllable), and two interesting ones at that, what with seemingly improbable (yet upon reflection sensible enough) suggestion of connections between the nature of language and ur-stuff of existence, plus the funny heterographic echo of “Hello?” in “Halo?”

Given my focus at work just before the reading, these opening queries just LIT UP my head. I immediately thought about why Armantrout asked these particular questions, in this way, and how should they be answered, but then – what do you know? – two more questions were asked in “A Resemblance,” the back-to-back:
“Are you happy now?”


Would I like
a vicarious happiness?
and before I could get too far in thinking about these the next poem (“Outer”) was coming through and it had two more questions (“Removal activates glamour?” and “The outer world means / State Farm Donuts Tae Kwando?”) to think about and then – does this come as a surprise? – as the reading proceeded there were plenty more poems that included a question or two. By the end of the night, my head was just about spinning with questions, and questions about Armantrout’s questions!

After the reading – and I scurried home, wanting to check on this – I re-read Versed, keeping an eye out for the questions. I counted 64 in the book’s 87 poems. Checking more, I re-read Armantrout’s first book – Extremities (1979) – and counted 20 questions scattered within its 31 poems. And then – it got to be really, really late, can you imagine? – I looked through her other collections and sure enough – while I didn’t count, and you will forgive me that, yes? – there were many questions in the poems of those books as well.

As such, there is in one respect no question about Armantrout’s questions: she uses, puts into her poems, a lot of them. It’s not predictable (there are many poems in which no question appears), but as the statistics or even casual readings of her work show, it happens plenty often, so much so that I must ask:

Is Armantrout the great poet inter(rae)gator of our time?

Well, is she?

I think so, but even if she isn’t, the question of her questions is one way (among at least a dozen I can think of just off the top of my head) to think hard about Armantrout’s poetry.

Armantrout’s questions come about first, I think, from her inquisitive intelligence, one that she recognized in herself very early on but which back then was surpressed, as she explained in her autobiography True (1998):
“Why?” and “What do you mean?” didn’t seem to have been allowable questions in my home. Now I can’t stop asking them.
The questions also reflect skepticism about the world in general, a mind-set that Armantrout has said there should be more commonly used Here’s how she put it in the Chicago Weekly earlier this year:
We never seem to be skeptical enough. [ . . . ] Poetry, the poetry I care about anyway, makes us slow down and think twice about what we’re reading, what we’re seeing. It makes us wonder and doubt. I think that’s good practice.
Related to her embrace of skepticism is Armantrout’s challenge, often fervent, to “the contemporary poetic convention of the unified Voice” (the quotation, and those that follow here, are from various essays in her Collected Prose). The questions in the poems often reflect a “consciousness of dissent” and a “polyphonic inner experience and an unbounded outer world.” They can also advance “a poetics of collisions and overlaps, contested spaces.” They further can explicitly demonstrate how Armantrout’s poems (again, her words) “are composed of conflicting voices.”


As I re-read Versed while obsessed with and thinking on Armantrout’s questions, I wondered what the questions might look like if strung together. So I did it, and it was fun and maybe a bit illuminating too. So here they are, lifted from the poems and formatted, in the order they appear, as a prose series. Some capitalization has been added, and the paragraph break separates the questions found in the book’s first section (“Versed”) from those in its second (“Dark Matter”):
Was it a flaming mouse that burned Mares’ house down or was it just the wind? Is this plausible? Archly? As word is mostly connotation, matter is mostly aura? Halo? “Are you happy now?” Would I like a vicarious happiness? Removal activates glamour? The outer world means State Farm Donuts Tae Kwando? What will you little chimes bring me? Can it be true that the baby is afraid his wish to gobble us up has been realized already? Could we grant them a quorum – dense, with the shiny glossolalia of the leaves, the resilience of open-ended questions? This sense of my senses being mine is what passes life to life? How distinguish one light from the next? Is it nummy? Yeah, huh? Where you put them – did you, for instance, those window bars reflected in sun glasses upside down between remotes? Who are you anyway? And what is that? Little apron leaves, what are you covering up, plump, and forgotten on a woody stalk? “Did you have fun playing with trains, Phantom Stallion, Rainbow Frog?” What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as “scumble,” “pinky,” or “extrapolate?” What if I maneuvered conversation in the hope that others would pronounce these words? What if “of” were such a hot button? What if there were a hidden pleasure in calling one thing by another’s name? What? Why shouldn’t an idée fixe be infinite? Because empty? The short moan – or hum? “What do you want to be?” Aren’t you exhausted, you green spear, you peel-back purple? How are we defining “dream?” An exaggerated sense of the relevance of these details, of “facts” presented? A peculiar reluctance to ask presented by whom and in what space? How far will you get? By what? How much would this body have had to be otherwise in order not to be mine, in order not to exist? When would that difference have had to begin? What have you got to lose? What is this extra element that is mingled in when you arrive at the ordained spot? The cumulus and the white flash from under the mocking-bird’s wing make what?

Who am I to experience a burst of star formation? Did the palo verde blush yellow all at once? And so I ask, “Do you need both skies?” Perfect red roses coaxed to frame a door beyond which a couple bickers – and why not? What’s the matter? Are you still interested in the image of this island as a brown shoulder or breast half-hidden by clouds? Are you turned on by chimeras? A tendency to take exception? How much of me could be lost while like remained? Could like stand alone? Does it? What can you give me for this glimpse and its provenance? What’s a person to us but a contortion of pressure ridges palpable long after she is gone? One what? One grasp? What did the men look like? Why wasn’t I told? Shriveled hedge flowers cast elaborate shadows on the broad, bright, sharp gladiola leaves now? But how do we come into it? A scarf? A string of notes – a string of words could be a worm or a needle passing in and out through some hole – stitching what to what? Who is asking? Flowers as punctuation?
Even (especially?) out of context, these questions hammer home not only the number of inquiries that Armantrout uses, but also her poetics, outlined above, of inquisitiveness, skepticism, collision, and contested space. But there’s more as well. A few – most obviously those in quotation marks – reflect her use of “found” conversation. Some are simple interrogatories, for which a yes or no answer could be given, while others open out into many possibilities. Some of these can almost be called kinds of riddles.

Armantrout’s riddle-questions deserve a special shout-out. First, I agree with Johans Huizinga, the 20th Century Dutch historian, who in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1944, English translation 1949) asserts that “the close connections between poetry and riddle are never entirely lost.”

More than that, Armantrout’s poems as a whole, whether they contain explicit questions or not, are riddled with riddles, ones that consistent with the principles of her poetics as outlined above are mostly not answerable with a single conclusory flourish. Among the question-riddles in Versed, I’m most partial to the one that comprises the entire second section of “Translated,” the poem that ends the book’s first section:
The cumulus

and the white flash

from under the mocking-bird’s wing

make what?
These lines read as – are – a straightforward, almost child-like inquiry, but not one for which a single response is readily available. Armantrout in the poem certainly provides no explicit or even easily inferred answer or solution to her query. She just puts the question-riddle to us, the readers, and we to get to work on it, and maybe ultimately we just puzzle with it.


This effect of placing of the reader – or listener – in the middle of the action is what most attracts me – attracted me Friday night – to Armantrout’s many questions. As a technique for engaging the reader (or listening audience), the question is almost peerless. When a question is posed, we all share a natural desire to answer, or at least to think about how we would answer. The impulse to respond kicks in and – what say thee? – you’re brought that much more into Armantrout’s poems.

Do you agree?




Rachel Loden said...

Interrogatrix? Inter(rae)gatrix?

In any case --

brilliantly argued!

Steven Fama said...

Ha! Rachel, you clever one! You are correct in your (presumed) implication that the suffix "trix" still sometimes shows up in the legal biz (e.g., "executrix"), but even there it is falling by the wayside, and of course the suffix is almost unheard of in general usage these days.

Of course, there is the obvious exception where "-trix" as a suffix still thrives: "dominatrix." I wouldn't go with "Inter(rae)gatrix" because of that connotation alone, you know?! Armantrout as a poet is assertive and a powerful presence, yes indeed, but her poetry is about as opposite of authoritarian and controlling as I can imagine!

Thanks for stopping in, for the kind comment, and the very lively suggestion!

Rachel Loden said...

Interesting. I actually love -trix and -trice (a related form) precisely because they play with female power and what in the world at large seems to be its scariness. Sandra Doller for instance calls herself “l’editrice” of her journal 1913, and for me that’s fun. But then I like to fall for long-discarded words (say in the OED) that foreground the weirdness and materiality of language. Can certainly see though how one could come at it from a very different angle.

Steven Fama said...

Beautiful to mine the OED for words, to vitalize them again in poems!
"The Inter(rae)gatrice" is damn fine too! Although that one is probably too smart for my blog-post headline. I went there for something more-or-less instantly "see-able" or, in other words, I devolved to the simplest pun-type thing I could think of, in an attempt to catch some attention.

I swear, I thought about "The Quesarmantroutioner" and I actually sort of regret not going with that!

Ed., P-Queue said...

Dear Steve Fama-

This is a comment in response to your post of April 20, 2010, on the one word/one line poems in the new Collected Eigner.

First, thanks for so much diligence in your recent posts on Eigner--this is fantastic groundwork for the attention he's so clearly due!

Second, having nearly completed a chapter on Eigner in relation to lyric and voice, I feel both happy and belated to have only just discovered your April 20 post. I've found myself gravitating to the same remarkable poems in the Collected--those in which the "drift" is most pronounced, and those in which the syntactic and semantic connections are most strained. Nearing the end of my chapter, I would have enjoyed conversation along the way!

I'll be happy to send a draft of the chapter for your review if you like, and in the meantime, I simply wanted to add a few poems to your list of one word / one liners:


All best,
Andrew Rippeon

Steven Fama said...

Thanks so much Andrew, for the list of additional Eigner poems with but one word per line. I've added the nine you kindly provide to the 34 I already had on the list that's at the end of that particular post (click here). I've also adjusted the numbers in the body of text of that post, so that it now reads, thanks to your additions, that there are a total of 43 Eigner poems with but one word per line.

I've e-mailed you about your kind offer to let me read your Eigner chapter (my answer = Yes, I'd love to do that!).

Thanks again!

Ed Baker said...

Dear Ed., P-Queue,
I would also like to read
your Larry Eigner chapter...

but, be for-warned , I am a one-word at-a-time reader

and, as I am in noh hurry and let the word(s) accrete

heavy demands are

(when one approaches 'things" this way... if they do)

made on each word...