When is a poem finished? Paul Valéry’s quip, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” may by now have provided the epigraph for enough Intro to Creative Writing syllabi that it no longer carries much weight. Nevertheless, the question remains. There is sublimity in the seemingly tossed-off poem that turns out to be the product of arduous labor, as much as in the finely wrought poem born fully formed out of a fervent backyard reverie or the evening walk home. So too, how much of the critical attention to Emily Dickinson’s vast body of work has to do with wondering what it means for one of her poems to be “finished”?
Rae Armantrout’s new collection, Itself, undermines our sense of the “finished poem.” Her poems drop in on the middle of a thought, stay just long enough to articulate a point, to draw a distinction, to offer a tiny portrait or scene, and then end abruptly, often without even the resolution of a punctuation mark. The final poem in the collection, “New Way,” ends:
Just get out
Armantrout seems to eschew “finished” language because the appearance of resolution or finality can often belie an underlying complexity of meaning, intention, and affect. Her poems perform arthroscopic surgery on what had appeared to be “finished” speech, particularly the pithy slogans and self-evident tones of advertising, a language machine expert in covering its tracks with “finish.” Armantrout’s poems seem to be written with the television on. They show us that surrealist poets need look no further than reality TV shows for inspiration. But her dissection of mainstream media remains wry and deadpan, never cranky or cantankerous. She writes of the iconic Life Alert commercials in the poem, “Fall”:
“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”
because we’re not old
or we’re not old yet
or not really.
One never knows when her smiling critique of schlocky ad spots will turn poignant.
Itself is Armantrout’s twelfth book of poems, and her third since winning the Pulitzer for Versed in 2010. Her ability to build meaning out of a tiny set of words may be unparalleled in contemporary American poetry; her poems recall the density of Lydia Davis, the radical open-ness of Emily Dickinson. Through small scenes and encounters, Armantrout stages the difficulty of relationships mediated by our current moment’s speech habits—those inundated by consumer desire, talking heads, and internet shorthand. Her poems exist because the internet. Within and against this linguistic landscape, how does one constitute the self? How can we imagine the self in relation to the television that we can’t seem to turn off?
The book’s jacket photograph features a spongy decorator crab, a creature that uses various materials (including other animals) to decorate its exterior; the particular crab photographed can barely be seen behind the ornate coral polyps it has attached to its body. The decorator crab provides a metaphor for Armantrout’s account of the formation of human consciousness. Our sense of self is built from the materials of experience, including the language and habits of other animals (especially humans). In the title poem, “Itself,” Armantrout writes:
I know you’re dreaming
things I haven’t dreamed,
wouldn’t. But that’s part
of your costume
Our dreams, anxieties, secrets, subconscious desires—the components that we generally bundle together under the heading “self”—are, for Armantrout, like the decorations of the crab. They are the materials we’ve gathered from our environment and tried on for size and utility. In fact, the spongy crab’s costume may be less of a metaphor and simply a different expression of the same animal impulse.
If our consciousness is a kind of costume (not only historically contingent, but also in some sense, selected), then it is also our responsibility, insofar as “our” and “it” can be somehow teased apart. In “Difficulty,” Armantrout imagines aliens arriving on Earth to pass judgment on our hopeless sentimentality. She explains to the aliens, “we know it’s wrong / to be sentimental.” Reading Itself will help us make ready for the judgment day when the race of jaded aliens arrives.
Part of this probing of the self and its costumes—or the self as its costumes—turns on the question of what it means to belong, and what it means for something to belong to the self. Something or someone belonging implies extending that thing into the future—it must “be long.” But can such claims to belonging be made by a mutable self? What happens to our sense of belonging when we swap out our costumes? “Can a thought truly be mine / if I’m not currently thinking it,” Armantrout asks in “Control.”
Everything that is about the self (the material that surrounds it) is also what the self is about. “Here’s something about me,” begins the poem, “Occurrence,” and Armantrout means “about” in both senses. American brand names, advertising slogans, and the glib proclamations of American reality TV stars can’t be neatly or easily distanced from the American self, because that self is all about them. If you rap about it, be about it. Armantrout’s poems provide notes for this wardrobe of the American self, a kind of “LANGUAGE Poet Eye for the Straight Guy” poetics.
Itself is also a clear-eyed (and often very funny) meditation on aging. “Functions” begins:
We inquire about heaven
as we might
about a nursing home.
Will I get email there?
Will I have insights
to be pleased with them?
There is a distinct (and deeply inspiring) vitality to a poet who can in one breath reflect on her mortality, and, in the next, on Finding Nemo, zombie movies, and A&E’s Buried Alive. In the hands of a master, they are mutually revealing.
Armantrout’s is a difficult poetry. Generally, when a poem of hers has failed for me, I feel like I have failed the poem. But the pleasures of her poetry are indelible. “I work it,” she writes in the title poem, “until sweetness // rises / of itself.” And we are all made wiser by it.
About the Reviewer
Sean Pears has lived in Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. His writing and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Jacket2, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, NOMAN’s Journal, and other places. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Poetics at SUNY Buffalo.