(Wesleyan University Press, 2013.) 
One of the four segments of “Entry” in Rae Armantrout’s new book of poems, Just
Saying, reads:

                                  Children prefer counterfactuals.

One unbroken line. The curtain rises and falls in a single, fluid movement. But the tone suggests recording more than theatrical entrance-exit. An entry in a diary or ledger. In the latter sense, “Entry” names the characteristic action of Armantrout’s poems. Because of the division into discrete sections, the main business of the poem tends to be aperture and closure. Although her tone is meditative and curious, and although she likes to push ideas to their logical conclusions, she does not care to take you through the thought process; she goes straight for the conclusion: “Children prefer counterfactuals.” No development, no ABA construction, andparticularly unusual in the composition of a poemno reversal. I don’t believe that Armantrout’s poems are especially shorter than anyone else’s, but they feel small and sharp because she has eliminated the middles. With so many edges, the poem has almost no room for a middle, just first and last lines followed by more first and last lines. The poem opens and closes:

                                     What flickers
                                     with some delicacy


                                     of feeling,

                                     some hesitancy –
                                     and then persists.


                                           (“Luster”)

Then it opens and closes again:


                                     What circles. What darts.

Out of several of these sharply defined segments, Armantrout makes a poem. What makes them poems? What holds the segments together other than sheer parataxis? What makes them poems when combined? Why isn’t each segment a poem? One structure that she sometimes relies on is theme and variations. In the poem “Just Saying,” the theme is the parallel, which never quite rises to the level of comparison, of writing and vinework:

                                     What I write
                                     I write instead of ivy.


These two terms could be compared: like writing, ivy could be viewed as a relationship between figure and ground; like ivy, writing could be viewed as a thing that grows. Either writing or ivy could be preferable: the speaker chooses writing rather than ivy, because the meaning of writing is easier to interpret; or the speaker would chose ivy, because it’s alive, but has to make do with writing. Armantrout has no such notion. She sets the two terms alongside each other, and she sets the settings alongside each other four times. The technique of construction by which she prefers to give wholeness to poems is to isolate a word, a bit of jargon or cliché, and move it further and further outside of its expected usage. The multiple appearances of this ordinary word run a thread through several discrete episodes. You often don’t notice the thread until she pulls it taut, at which point it becomes a spine. This operation often occurs between the title and the last line. In “And,” for example, the title shines a spotlight on a series of rhetorical doublets, concluding with “fish and circuses,” so that an ordinary, useful word seems to rise to the top of the page. In “Luster,” the word “what” does some of this work. Each appearance of “what” is balanced between question and exclamation. Either: What is it that circles? Or: What circles! (Or: “what” makes them poems, “what” holds them together, etc.) This effect is characteristic and unique. It can take any content. It can even take any tone. It can be teasing, curious, threatening, knowing, sarcastic, paranoid, proud, gentle. The feeling it names, however, is consistent. Not ecstatic or epiphanic, but something more like what Archimedes meant when he shouted, Eureka! The feeling of having an idea. Arriving at a solution and seeing behind it a prospect of all the new intellectual problems disclosed by the solution.

                                                                                          —Aaron Kunin 

 

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