Books covered in this review:
• Versed, by Rae Armantrout. Wesleyan University Press. 121 pp., $22.95
• The Winter Sun: Notes on an Avocation, by Fanny Howe. Graywolf Press. 196 pp., $15.00
Is there anything other than the fact that these two writers are women that causes them to be reviewed together? Well, they were included by Ron Silliman in his In the American Tree (though only Armantrout made it into Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry). They were both born around the same time–Howe in 1940, Armantrout in 1947, and while this may seem like a small common ground from which to start, other similarities and connections will be explored as this review progresses.
Rae Armantrout was born in Vallejo, California, but grew up in San Diego. She has published nine books of poetry and has also been featured in a number of major anthologies. She currently teaches at the University of California, San Diego, where she is professor of poetry and poetics.
In his foreword to Veil: New and Selected Poems, Ron Silliman characterizes Armantrout’s poetry as “the literature of the vertical anti-lyric, those poems that at first glance appear contained and perhaps even simple, but which upon the slightest examination rapidly provoke a sort of vertigo effect as element after element begins to spin wildly toward more radical (and, often enough, sinister) possibilities.” Paul Hoover adds to this that “her approach to composition associates things more in clusters that in (narrative) lines,” citing from Armantrout’s essay “Chains” that “these associations are ‘neither transparent and direct nor arbitrary, but somewhere in between. . . . Doubt and choice can coexist in the reader’s mind. For me this better corresponds to the character of experience.’” Armantrout is a reluctant language poet who feels that the term
seems to imply division between language and experience, thought and feeling, inner and outer. The work I like best sees itself and sees the world. It is ambi-centric, if you will. The writers I like are surprising, revelatory. They bring the underlying structures of language/thought into consciousness.
In her “Poetic Statement,” collected in American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, she expands on that statement:
I think my poetry involves an equal counterweight of assertion and doubt. It’s a Cheshire poetics, one that points two ways then vanishes in the blur of what is seen and what is seeing, what can be known and what it is to know. That double bind.
As with politics, so with art–it is difficult to sustain radicality. It may be that what was once radical, once accepted, becomes–or at least approaches–the mainstream (or does the mainstream approach it?). Compare the opening poem in Versed, “Results,” to the opening poem in Veil, “Extremities.” Part 1 of “Results,” a poetic sequence, reads:
Click here to vote
on what’s ripe
for a makeover
in this series pilot.
Votes are registered
at the server
and sent back
A significant proportion of Versed is comprised of sequences. Not so Veil. “Extremities,” presented here in its entirety, is not:
Going to the desert
is the old term
“landscape of zeroes”
the glitter of edges
again catches the eye
to approach these swords!
lines across which
beings vanish / flare
the charmed verges of presence
Although both poems are clustered, the first exhibits much more of a logical, narrative flow, whereas in the second the lines seem to float independently, as if coalescing on the page like debris deposited by a narrative stream. Note the humor that appears in both, though more overtly in the first. Although the structure is the same, the latter is a much more radical approach within that structure. The former even contains punctuation.
Note, in particular, the line “in this series pilot.” The words are not “pilot series,” which could flow logically from the first stanza, one interpretation of which could refer to a television viewer participating in a Nielsen survey. Considering that the words appear in the first part of a poetic series, they could also be self-referential. This would place Armantrout as the “server” and, hence, refer to the editing process. Referring again to Silliman’s forward to Veil: “Armantrout is perhaps the most rigorous and obsessive reviser–revision in some vital inner-driven sense is her process of writing.” It could also be a way of honoring her writing circle, which, we learn from Silliman, consists of “a small and somewhat rotating cluster of friends,” to whom she has long sent versions and revisions. This cluster has at times included not only Silliman, Bob Perelman, and Lyn Hejinian, but also Fanny Howe.
This does not mean that Armantrout does not take shots at the sycophants who deliver the evening news. Having alluded to the medium of television in the first poem before swerving away from it, she returns in the title poem, where she writes:
The “Issues of the Day”
are mulled steadily
The word “mulled” is an interesting choice–one of those bon mots with which Valéry would have been proud to be associated. It is one of those words with a multiplicity of meanings, from “a period of deep thought” to “the flavouring of an alcoholic beverage” to “the nonacidic humus on a forest floor that eventually integrates into the soil beneath it.” The wit exhibited in these three lines is immense. Armantrout lambastes and lampoons not only the experts who analyze the dead material of humus until it reaches an even greater inertness but also the American viewing public who depend on these “surrogates” to think for them.
While the wit that has long marked Armantrout’s work survives in this book, not so her familiar collage technique. Many of the poems have become indistinguishable from straight lyric. A prime example is the title poem of the “Dark Matter” section. Examining the first part, we see a logical flow even though expressed in her cluster technique:
Who am I
to experience a burst
of star formation?
I know this—
after the first rush
recedes and dims.
Certainly this is good lyric–great, in fact–and much better than most. But it is not the adventurous work by which she has come to be known. If you are only going to own one Armantrout, this isn’t the one.
Fanny Howe was born in Boston in 1940. In addition to being a poet, she is also a novelist and short story writer, having published more than twenty books and won many prizes, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which is presented annually by the Poetry Foundation to a living American poet whose lifetime accomplishments warrant extraordinary recognition. She is currently professor emeriti of writing and literature at the University of California, San Diego
The Winter Sun is a collage, but not of things borrowed. The collage here is a collection of Howe’s various writings, from prose poem to prose to lyric. This approach provides an insight into the distinction between poem and prose, as both are by the same author. “The Message,” for example, is a prose poem:
Everything has already happened at every step I take. I enter, with each move, the past of the place I am entering. This would be true on a city street, with people walking toward me. I would be entering the face of their past, they would be entering mine. Everything would be over for all of us everywhere we stepped.
“Branches,” meanwhile, is a recollection of Howe’s early memories written in prose:
My sister, Susan, and I shared a room with many windows in the back of the railroad flat. She was three and a half years older than me, which would have made her six at the time. The day of my birth must have been a dark day for her, but being oblivious to that, I idolized her and happily did her bidding. We settled ourselves into the classic order determined by the superiority of the firstborn.
The distinction between prose and a prose poem is definitely evident in these passages – note the distinct rhythm of the first and the difference in the narrative flow between the first example and the second where the second is very logical while the first is an oscillation in time.
Like Ron Silliman in some of his excursions, Howe is not averse to interposing prose with verse, as this passage from “Branches” shows:
I look and see what has some to look back at me: a sizzle of frost
links forms between the tracks and winter clouds are furry.
They shield the fields the way fresh water shields a fish.
A chill burns color from all things.
While wool whirls from factory spires.
Spouts and tunnels in the air and silk rope.
“The order of the signs”–these are called.
The Winter Sunis essentially Howe’s memoirs. Interesting anecdotes about growing up with her sister, poet Susan Howe, in a nonconformist family—their mother established the Poets Theatre in their home, and Robert Lowell, Samuel Beckett, Kenneth Rexroth, and more were regular visitors—are presented in a prose style whose strength will not surprise anyone familiar with Howe’s verse.
Ultimately, these two books capture a pair of poets in their sixties, each having behind her a long writing career. Considering that Howe divided her writing time between prose and poetry, The Winter Sun is effectively representative, and while Armantrout is not at her best in Versed, it nonetheless offers a snapshot of her current approach. Though neither book would be recommended as the place to begin reading these poets, or as the only one of their books you might read, they’re nonetheless interesting and enjoyable. If you’re a fan you’ll want to add them to your collections.
The author of poetry, reviews, and essays published in a number of literary journals both in the United States and Canada, John Herbert Cunningham has recently become host of the half-hour radio program, “Speaking of Poets,” which is available for download or streaming from The University of Winnipeg’s CKUW. He is currently working on a manuscript of poetry.
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