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Rae Armantrout

January 2019

Valerie Wieland

There’s no doubt that Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout is a superb poet, but to fully appreciate her latest book Wobble, a quick read-through might not do.

There’s no doubt that Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout is a superb poet, but to fully appreciate her latest book Wobble, a quick read-through might not do. Granted, some poems, like “Negotiations” are pretty straightforward, as shown by these lines:

The best part
is when we’re tired
of it all
in the same degree,

a fatigue we imagine
to be temporary,
and we lie near each other,
toes touching.

But Armantrout seems to take joy in challenging the reader. She often inserts fragments of quotes; perhaps some have been overheard, others read or imagined or spoken by the poet herself. She applies them, along with found fragments, in a context that is not expected. Here’s how she uses quotations in “Practice”:

In the future,
fewer people

“in your life,”

more in the world.
More strangers.

Practice being one.

To get a clearer understanding of her work, know that Armantrout’s background puts her in the middle of the Language movement in poetry. It’s experimental, often abstract and arbitrary, using words detached from their common meaning. As such, it opens up each poem to be interpreted by the reader, and each reading might produce a different interpretation.

A number of Armantrout’s poems use questions that give the reader a chance to provide answers. In “Hell” she asks:

What if
the wish to be precise
the world of objects?

“Conjunctions” poses the question:

what if
and only pain
can be

Then there’s “Object Permanence,” wondering:

What if displaying
our embarrassing flaws
won’t save us—

say being dead
but kittenish?

Object comes into play again in “Object Lessons,” a two-parter that starts out with a sentence that coaxed me to read and reread it:

That a memory,
caught and mounted

for permanent display,
is not much

like anything that happens
can’t be surprising.

Another way to grasp Armantrout’s creativity is to look no further than some of her titles, such as the simply-stated: “Say,” “Are,” “To,” and “So.”

“Are” is one of the poems I like best. In it she writes:

A pair of mockingbirds
on a wire, seining

the neighborhood
for sounds.
Apart from “is” and “are,”
verbs act out

Pen stopped, tip to page
for an instant

as if purpose
was ribbed,
And even they

Yes, that’s the ending. It’s quite typical of the poems in this book to end with a puzzling set of words and no punctuation. So, does “they” refer to mockingbirds, or to shapes or clouds she mentions early on in the poem? Here again, I’m figuring it’s up to me to determine.

At times, her poetry is didactic, as in “The Emotional Life of Plants.” We can’t help but learn something, but she also poses a striking ending. The poem begins:

An exciton consists
of the escaped negative
and the positive hole
it left behind.

After writing that the exciton: “must be left / strictly alone / so that it travels / all ways at once / going nowhere,” she concludes that “for the lonely, / direction is meaningless.”

Maybe I put too much credence in my own interpretation of “The Emotional Life of Plants” as I selected which lines to quote. But perhaps that’s the beauty of it.

Armantrout’s poetry is not without humor. A good example is found in “Design Elements,” when she writes: “

I like it
when the clouds

are retro—

puffs and dashes

of Morse code.

God’s faux messages,
all in fun.

In “Near,” she carries out her humor by writing about aliens not understanding our humor and about zombie decades.

I was glad to see Armantrout address her own work in “Cottage Industry”:

My long career
in explaining
my career,

my way
of proceeding,

my careen.

She has had a dual career of teaching writing at the University of California, San Diego, and publishing many previous books of poetry. Regarding poetry and poets, she has this to say, from “Say”:

Says blogs, Facebook,
and Instagram
have replaced poetry as ways
of taking
the private public.

And pay attention to these words of advice in “Flux” when writing your own poetry:

Come on poets,
word it

till it’s yours
or no one’s

the way the clock
on my nightstand,

long hand
bonking the numbers

is no one’s

Armantrout’s poems in Wobble are short, and at a glance they look easy. They may be for some, but to get the full effect, settle into them. The results may vary, but does it matter? They test our curiosity in the best ways.


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