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 isRight 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?”
matter is mostly
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?”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!
Would I like
a vicarious happiness?
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?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.
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?
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 cumulusThese 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.
and the white flash
from under the mocking-bird’s wing
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?