Rae Armantrout writes with succinct brilliance about immense subjects such as time and the forces that animate the universe. She brings the same concise insight to bear when considering a drop of water or words spoken by a toddler. Finalists, her latest poetry collection from Wesleyan, is a double book of pithy observations and probing questions examining nature, technology, beauty, and loss in the Anthropocene.
Threat Landscape is the title of the first of these two volumes. In part one of the eponymous poem, life’s origin and the subsequent development of “lateral suppression” is considered, “the ability to boost some signals / while tamping others down—” with the jagged results, “the threat landscape, // projected now on screens / by paid experts.” Part two shifts immediately into direct address acknowledging the terrifying characteristics of a butterfly’s flight:
with their abrupt approaches
and batty swerves.
They mix the outside in.
We don’t know what will happen.
Armantrout’s juxtaposition of conceptual analysis with the image of a small organism—in this instance an ominous metaphor—starkly reinforces her concerns by illustrating the widening gulf between nature and the virtual world created by humans. Increasingly, this artificial realm is where our species dwells, but at what cost? Throughout Finalists, such contrasts and implications are ubiquitous.
Short lines and copious white space are hallmarks of this collection, and the delays created by the line breaks and spacing promote meditative reading. The extra time required to ponder these poems’ spare words is well invested, yielding much added interest and cognitive wealth. My attempt at humor in that last sentence, incidentally, was likely inspired by Armantrout’s famous wit. Her poems frequently take a playful turn immediately after some scientific or metaphysical explication. Here, for example, are the last three stanzas from “Instruction,” containing a segue that I found especially delightful:
The mad hear language
and are humble before it.
They receive instruction.
The child in her crib
turns her head restlessly,
says, “aaah, aaah”
like an engine left running.
Many of the poems in Finalists feature language spoken to or by a young child. Armantrout shrewdly perceives the ambiguity suggested by commonplace utterances and shares with us distillations of deeper truth spoken in innocence or oblivion. A chilling example of this can be found in “Circles” in which the narrator first contemplates the present and future as supposed solutions for one another. The poem then morphs into an image of Roundup-infused Cheerios in a cup and concludes with “‘circles,’ / one girl chirps.” In “Much,” the acquisition of language is considered within the context of “pretend play” in which babies begin to develop their responses to the question, “What do you think you’re doing?” Never again will I hear an adult say this to a child without falling into a deep reverie.
The second volume, like the double book itself, is titled Finalists. Its first poem, “Crescendo,” mourns the anticipated loss of loveliness, exemplified by late afternoon light on a small ornamental pear tree. The word “grizzled” twice modifies the tree’s leaves, followed first by “dark red” and then “gold and dark / red” which becomes “The gold my people / razed the world for—”. Armantrout’s contrasts between nature’s laws and human transgressions, vegetative flourishing and the biosphere’s decimation are deft and sharp, resounding in the mind like a struck bell.
Leaves are integral to this collection. Their vivid colors and graceful movements provide a view of beauty outside the window where we sit. They appear, grow, change, wither, and die with the cycle of seasons, a metaphor for our lives. Catalyzed by light, they synthesize food from water and carbon dioxide, expelling surplus oxygen in the process. What could be more miraculous? “On Melancholy” contains one of my favorite passages, a gorgeous image evoking the speaker’s longing to resemble the leaves:
the dangling threads
of the weeping cypress—
how I would love to make
the elegant, dismissive
of those long fingers—
Armantrout creates subtle and lovely music with her word choices and arrangement. In the excerpt above, the light “l” in “love” and “long” is softened by “elegant” with its velar, or dark “l” between them, and the profusion of sibilant sounds in “threads,” “cypress,” “dismissive,” “gestures,” “those,” and “fingers” creates a euphony reminiscent of a gentle breeze.
Humans are closely observed by Armantrout, and she posits astute theories on this most complicated, contradictory creature. Take, for example, the last three stanzas of “The Mysteries”:
People are obvious
until you love them.
Then they’re black boxes,
deep-sixed flight recorders,
or presents that won’t open.
This is why
the word “why”
so often sounds
like an accusation.
Once again, Armantrout’s perspicacity and artistry made me gasp. Her use of enjambment is masterful, creating a surprising turn in the first excerpted stanza and a powerful epistrophe in the third.
Throughout Finalists, communication within and between humans frequently stems from or leads to metaphysical reflection. In “Cloud,” the speaker wonders “if lives / are probability waves in slow motion.” The speaker’s husband distracts her from her thoughts by reading aloud pandemic facts, and she later overhears him loudly repeat the same facts to someone on the phone. In a dream, the speaker hears an “aging pair” converse, and she questions her role as listener. “I’m not a good audience, I tell myself, but that’s not true. I was a great / audience member for the people in my dream.” In the sixth and final stanza the speaker concludes, “If both people, and say, photons are realized by a process of incalculable / loss, then I have discovered a secret identity and will receive a pleasurable / throb.” This conditional statement followed by the anticipation of a sensory effect places the speaker’s corporeal existence at a remove, a twist both humorous and disturbing in its suggestion of artificial intelligence. Characteristically incisive, Armantrout probes cognition and speech, production and receptivity at varying degrees of distance, pondering discovery and loss in terms both personal and theoretical.
Remarkable for its vibrancy and scope, Finalists is a collection of far-ranging journeys of exploration. In these poems, Rae Armantrout graciously provides us with lucid maps with which we can follow her quantum leaps of thought. Replete with delight, foreboding, humor, and surprise, Finalists is a splendid compendium of wonder.
About the Reviewer
Linda Scheller is the author of two books of poetry, Fierce Light (FutureCycle Press, 2017), and Wind and Children, forthcoming from Main Street Rag Press in June 2022. Her poetry, plays, and book reviews are published or forthcoming in Poetry East, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Terrain, Notre Dame Review, The Museum of Americana, and Poem. Recently her manuscript Black Forest was a finalist for the Barrow Street Book Prize, and her writing was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her website is lindascheller.com.