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What do "self" and "it" have in common? In Rae Armantrout's new poems, there is no inert substance. Self and it (word and particle) are ritual and rigmarole, song-and-dance and long distance call into whatever dark matter might exist. How could a self not be selfish? Armantrout accesses the strangeness of everyday occurrence with wit, sensuality, and an eye alert to underlying trauma, as in the poem "Price Points" where a man conducts an imaginary orchestra but "gets no points for originality." In their investigations of the cosmically mundane, Armantrout's poems use an extraordinary microscopic lens--even when she's glancing backwards from the outer reaches of space. An online reader's companion is available at http://raearmantrout.site.wesleyan.edu.
In Just Saying, improbable and even untenable speakers are briefly constituted--only to disappear. The result is part carnival, part nightmare. A television pundit's rhetoric segues into an unusual succulent with writhing maroon tongues. When the world suddenly becomes legible, is that revelation or psychosis? In this book, the voice of the Lord and/or the voice of the security state can come from anyplace. The problem of identity becomes acute. The poems in Just Saying may be imagined as chimeras, creatures that appear when old distinctions break down and elements generally kept separate combine in new ways. Here Armantrout both worries (as a dog worries a bone) and celebrates the groundless fecundity of being and of language.
The poems in Money Shot are forensic. Just as the money shot in porn is proof of the male orgasm, these poems explore questions of revelation and concealment. What is seen, what is hidden, and how do we know? Money Shot's investigation of these questions takes on a particular urgency because it occurs in the context of the suddenly revealed market manipulation and subsequent "great recession" of 2008-2009. In these poems, Rae Armantrout searches for new ways to organize information. What can be made manifest? What constitutes proof? Do we "know it when we see it"? Looking at sex, botany, cosmology, and death through the dark lens of "disaster capitalism," Armantrout finds evidence of betrayal, grounds for rebellion, moments of possibility, and even pleasure, in a time of sudden scarcity and relentless greed. This stunning follow-up to Versed--winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a finalist for the National Book Award--is a wonderfully stringent exploration of how deeply our experience of everyday life is embedded in capitalism.
Rae Armantrout has always organized her collections of poetry as though they were works in themselves. Versed brings two of these sequences together, offering readers an expanded view of the arc of her writing. The poems in the first section, Versed, play with vice and versa, the perversity of human consciousness. They flirt with error and delusion, skating on a thin ice that inevitably cracks: "Metaphor forms / a crust / beneath which / the crevasse of each experience." Dark Matter, the second section, alludes to more than the unseen substance thought to make up the majority of mass in the universe. The invisible and unknowable are confronted directly as Armantrout's experience with cancer marks these poems with a new austerity, shot through with her signature wit and stark unsentimental thinking. Together, the poems of Versed part us from our assumptions about reality, revealing the gaps and fissures in our emotional and linguistic constructs, showing us ourselves where we are most exposed.