“‘Poetry wants/ to make things mean// more than they mean,’/ says someone// as if we knew/ how much things meant// and in what unit/ of measure.” Rae Armantrout’s newest collection of poetry, Just Saying, is in constant investigation of what it means to mean. Obsessed with the absurdities of the everyday, the turns of phrase that get forgotten in passing conversation, animal behavior, and how things tick, Just Saying creates a powerful gestalt that might just mean something. Throughout the work, Armantrout pulls disparate threads together into small, fragmented poems that simultaneously create the impression of a larger tapestry and critique the assumption that one is present. I have often thought of Armantrout’s poetry as attempting to deconstruct and make sense of the world around it. This deconstruction reaches as far as the ongoing war in Iraq and as close to home as a passing cyclist on the side of the road. In its endless deconstruction, Armantrout’s poetry always points to the aporia that tricks us into thinking that the way that we live, communicate, and think about the world, is not absurd.
As the title suggests, Just Saying introduces a little bit of skepticism into our daily interactions and then excuses itself from the conversation, leaving us reeling with afterthoughts. It also tends to trivialize those big questions we find ourselves fixating upon. As Armantrout writes in her poem, “Bardos”: “Some say the soul/ hangs from the ceiling/ when the doctor pronounces/ the body dead// and, afterwards, perhaps,/ watches crises/ in the lives of strangers,/ bored// as we are here.” Here as elsewhere in Armantrout’s lines, boredom and malaise are both grim and comforting affirmations that carry over into the unknown. Life and death are equally mundane, and even in passing we find ourselves viewing some variation of trashy reality television.
Although the unknown may be unsettling, perhaps the more disturbing feature of these quiet poems is the purgatory that they construct for the reader. This purgatory is one of impenetrable spectatorship and speculation, one without clear answers, where even in death we find ourselves trying to fill our time with anything but self reflection. That is not to say that these poems are not thoughtful. In fact, through her poems Armantrout communicates a poignant argument about late capitalism. The ominous reality of the world in which we live is that both subjectivity and the excesses of information that we encounter everyday have been flattened into the same dimension, the same economy, the same exchange of words, losing any semblance of meaning. It is up to the reader to find meaning in the wreckage of broken thoughts and images that the poet exposes.
While these poems attack the idea that we can be certain about anything, they are nevertheless punctuated by real things, sometimes even beautiful things like, “[…] phone lines,// the shared slouch/ of those two// or this one/ like a ruler// where a hummingbird/ marks the center/ slash.” What distinguishes Armantrout’s work is her ability to flawlessly navigate through the abstract and the material in a single breath. Her work is unapologetically critical but avoids the tendency to bog itself down with critical jargon. She lets observation do the talking.
Cosmo Spinosa is a poet and critic living in the San Francisco Bay area. He received his Master in Fine Arts with a concentration in poetry at Mills College and has a B.A. in Literature from UC San Diego. His creative work can be found here.