Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Veil: New and Selected Poems

Armantrout, Rae. Veil: New and Selected Poems. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press,

Armantrout’s New and Selected gathers poems from her first six books, as well as a collaboration with the poet Ron Silliman and more recent, uncollected work. The predominant aesthetic characteristic of Armantrout’s poetry is the short, lyric line and the manner in which meaning accumulates over the course of the poem. To this extent, when the poet writes: “I too/ am a segmentalist,” she acknowledges that global meanings or messages of an individual poem develop through an aggregation of words, lines, and stanzas, while simultaneously retaining an isolated particularity. As such, there is a contingency inherent to her language based upon form, “circumstance,” and context, that is to say “the way a single word/ could mean// necessary, relative, provisional” (101). In addition to the unfolding of meaning through time, the shorter lines provide a “syncopated,/ almost cadenced…way/ that…invent[s]/ ‘understanding’” (58); or in other words, “syncopation” and “cadence,” or the musicality and rhythm of a line aids in the construction of “understanding.” Regarding content, Armantrout focuses much of her attention on the manner in which both representation and reference function in relation to language. For instance, she writes: “If I can avoid these words, what remains should be my experience” (82); but avoiding words, especially for a writer, is not feasible. Instead of direct experience, then, there is mediation that produces a “measure of fear [and] Distortion” (18). The “fear” derives from the fact that language as a system of reference, to the poet’s mind, “is inimical” (104). She voices a similar sentiment when she writes: “’I think he’s hiding/ behind a screen// of words// and I think that’s/ very dangerous” (143). In addition to the commentary on the nefarious character of language, the incorporation of dialogue and quotation permeates Armantrout’s work because “Ventriloquoy/ is the mother tongue” (56); this allows for the poet and the poem to, literally, say things they otherwise could not by allowing for a poly-vocal text. Other aesthetic considerations in Armantrout’s writing are abstraction, which is used to “discover how/ two things/ can constitute a recurrence” (111), and disjunctive, or seemingly non-associative phrases. The poet writes with regard to the latter of these two characteristics: “When I say ‘dissociation,’/ I may have said ‘real-time action’” (112). In this regard, it would appear that associative images or phrases form only through contemplation, whereas “dissociation” and disjunctions are actually the initial or “real-time” condition in the mind functions; Armantrout, therefore, attempts to capture the incipient thoughts of her mind in motion.

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