a moebius strip search: rae armantrout and the speaking id-self
WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2015
REVIEW BY AISHA BHOORI
Testosterone-infused teens straddle into a sultry gentlemen’s club for a stimulating evening; hungry seagulls, hyper-attuned to sensory stimuli, flock toward a slightly inebriated, mostly penniless soloist who cradles, in his trembling hands, an untuned saxophone; a flannel-clad activist distributes Harvey Milk campaign brochures in the Castro District’s syringe-littered alleys. The 1970s Bay Area thrived on such counterculture, and it was in this subversive environment that poet Rae Armantrout— then in her mid-twenties—tried LSD. “I clearly saw [during the trip],” Armantrout admits in her memoir True, though her decision may have been a hazy one. “Most of what I called ‘me,’” she realized, “was a system of defensive barricades.” Appreciating this psychedelic experience as a “premature encounter with ‘deconstruction,’” a matured Armantrout has since tried to recreate an altered state of consciousness—in which self-fragmentation gives way to self-perception—through her verses.
Influenced by peer West Coast L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets such as Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian, Armantrout noticeably employs the idiosyncratic avant-garde Language style: disjunctive verses that oppose the institution, the narrative, the subjective. Any characteristic, in short, of the lyric—that private and confessional expression from a lone person. Despite admitting that she is, “of course,” one of the people associated with Language poetry, Armantrout pries open her own admission for inquiry. “Most of you know that,” she acknowledges to readers in her essay “Cheshire Poetics,” “but when you know that, what do you know?” The question, insofar that it addresses a nondescript second-person, seems pedagogical. By prompting us to reconsider both our knowledge of her poetic identity and knowledge as a construct, Armantrout instructs that every eye, hers included, is “a guard” (“My Associates” 13-14) safekeeping the lyric ‘I’ and its “defensive barricades” from an inquisitive ‘you.’ We’d best emulate, then, the “Man in/the eye clinic/rubbing his/eye” (“Postcards” 1-4), for only after we’ve examined our mental gaze can we comprehend why Armantrout has so readily insisted that we remain suspicious of it. “My poetry,” Armantrout explains in the essay, “is a Cheshire poetics, one that points two ways then vanishes in a blur of what is seen and what is seeing, what can be known and what it is to know. That double bind.” Armantrout entangles us, in turn, in this dizzying bind: if we are to understand her as a poet, Language or otherwise, we must “see/double, hear bad puns delivered with a wink” (“Double” 2-3). And what a slow and mocking, conspiring wink this is.
Armantrout’s first pun is, in many ways, also the title of her first book; Extremities (1978) at once imparts a corporeal definition—limbs, specifically hands and feet—and a longitudinal one—a region’s outermost limit. Armantrout blends and blurs these semantical distinctions in order to describe herself: to inform us of what she does, where she stands, and how far she will, or would like to, take her poetry. She uses her extremities to write from and of extremities. We see this more explicitly in the book’s first poem; “Generation” tells a story that Armantrout has, in Lowell-like fashion, been de-ranging and arranging since its composition. “We know the story,” Armantrout insists in the opening verse. And indeed, if the story is a generational one—of and by and for a body of people born and living at the same time—then we should know it. Having presumably stored it in our ancestral memory, we should also expect that it be retrospective. Written in the present tense, however, the story appears impervious to the temporal: “She turns/back to find her trail/devoured by the birds/The years/the undergrowth,” the next lines read. Before doesn’t matter, and neither does after, according to this communal consciousness. Transit is stasis. We have only “the years”—and unquantified ones at that—to trace plot chronology.
Spanning eternity, the story lacks a discernible beginning, for it begins with a backwards glance directed towards some other beginning. The story lacks, too, a discernible ending, for it ends beneath dense shrubbery. And resembling Armantrout’s acid trip, the story lacks one point of view, for in turning back “she” meets a denouement similar to that of “her trail”—devoured as the poem’s subject by the birds, the years, the undergrowth. She leaves us to gaze, in her wake, at the silhouette of an identity elusive, unfixed, and ambiguous. She can very well be a Gretel-type figure; though, contrary to the story with which we’re familiar, this one tells us that she turns back to a trail of her own, and not Hansel’s, construction. This story, then, requires meticulous eye-rubbing. If we rub hard enough we might “see double,” see that “she” is actually Armantrout, turning back to find syntactical bits isolated from different stories and strung together in a kind of linguistic faux collage. “As a child,” Armantrout confirms in a later poem, “I was abandoned/in a story/made of trees.” The lyric ‘I’ is abandoned in “Generation”—left, really, to wander amidst a nonlinear story, its gaps and empties awaiting the poet’s unimaginable phrases.
Devouring this story’s “she” and abandoning its ‘I,’ Armantrout seems to skirt the fringe between personal and plural. She seems, more specifically, to evoke Language poet Lyn Hejinian’s conjecture, in her essay “The Person and Description,” that the “personal…is located somewhere within, somewhere inside the body—in the stomach? the chest? the genitals? the throat? the head?” In both the extremities and the body’s core? In “several body parts [that are] subject to dispersal?” Is “Generation,” then, about a single yet dispersed “she” who contains multitudes? The New Yorker’s Dan Chiasson suggests as much. “[Armantrout] takes the basic premises of Language writing,” he observes, “somewhere they were never intended to go: toward the mapping of a single individual’s extraordinary mind and uniquely broken heart.”
So having mapped the mind and heart, why does Armantrout return, thirty-seven years later, to the owner of these organs in Itself (2015)? We get some insight in the opening poem of her fifteenth collection. “Chirality,” like Extremities, derives, at least in part, from mathematics; a property of asymmetry, the titular term describes that which is distinguishable from its mirror image. When Armantrout wonders, “If I didn’t need/to do anything…Would I summon/a beholder?” in the poem, it’s as if she’s interrogating the asymmetry of the devoured “she” and abandoned ‘I’ from “Generation”: Is the self chiral since it is comprised of multiple and dispersed images? And, more importantly, who gets to decide? If, as Armantrout indicates, the summoned beholder does, then the self is not centralized in—may in fact encompass more than—a single individual’s mind and heart—may be dispersed within and among several bodies. It’s not enough to rub our eyes like the man in the eye clinic, according to such reasoning, because the doubles we see, though conjoined, are disparate. To objectively observe ourselves requires additional eyes and, as a result, additional observers.
Armantrout’s skepticism of the self’s coherence coheres, in the poem’s latter half, around the medium through which she relays this skepticism: language. She ponders asking the beholder “what it means/ to pass through the void…with no resistance,” and if it “differs/from not passing.” In asking to differentiate resistance-less passing from not passing, Armantrout asks to reverse the blending and blurring of semantical distinctions that she conducted in Extremities. She asks to separate these distinctions just as she asks to separate the self’s potentially chiral images and, in doing so, draws parallels between the self and the words the self uses for expression. Chiasson, however, disagrees that Armantrout would make such a comparison. She aims to “countermand, rather than to express identity,” he claims, “to reveal the hand-me-down-nature of what we take to be deeply personal memories.” By the end of “Chirality,” though, the poet has situated herself—or, at least, her summoned beholder—in a position apt enough to both countermand and express identity. We cannot separate distrust of the self from distrust of language, Armantrout has by now suggested; the former is inextricably wound in and bound to the latter. And so she suggests, in turn, that to countermand and express is to pen a Cheshire poetics. That double bind.
Since Armantrout has made clear that she will, throughout the remainder of Itself, engage with the subject ‘I’ without speaking from the subject itself, she can retell the story about trees in which “I was abandoned” (“The Way” 11). She can return to the self’s blissful abode, retrace its innocent steps. And this she does. “Eden,” like many of Armantrout’s poems, is divided into sections. The first reads as a continuation of “Chirality.” “About can mean near/or nearly,” the poet begins. But, ever quick to “see double” (“Double” 2), Armantrout recognizes the adverb’s prepositional applicability: “A book can be about something,” too, after all. In juxtaposing the above verses, Armantrout maps out a single word’s denotations in the same manner as she would a single individual’s mind and heart. Language, she demonstrates, can be interpreted then reinterpreted and, after multiple iterations of this cycle, misinterpreted. Language used in one context sounds eerily similar to language used in another, and such similarity belies meaning. “To refrain is to stop yourself,” Armantrout gives another instance of duality, as the verb is also a noun that signifies “a repeated phrase.” Such duality, we might conclude, is more like an antithesis. We might conclude, too, that just as “refrain” embodies this antithesis—simultaneously referring to cessation and repetition—so does the self.
Lest we think, however, that we are right to assume that “Eden” is solely about language—about the self’s conception from opposition—Armantrout evokes the archaic backdrop we would expect to read about in our origin story. She immediately orients us, in the penultimate section, to an identifiable context: the “early Machine Age.” Here, there is also an identifiable—neither devoured nor abandoned— subject: an “antique” table marked by an “indented/circle within a circle/motif” appearing at “three-inch intervals.” The measured cyclicality and enduring interiority suggested by the motif’s aesthetics, the preposition ‘within,’ and the marked intervals suggest that the table is a metaphor for the self and, by extension, language. To be sure, the inanimate and sentient share a few attributes. They are compact, as if teeming with circles; they exhibit systematized regularity, as if straining to conform with a ruler’s dashed, exacting lines.
There’s a sense, though, that these similarities detract from the self. There’s a sense that what we view as a deeply personal memory—man’s time in and ensuing fall from Eden— is being revealed in a “hand-me-down” fashion; that however “antique”the table may be, the Machine Age deems it most fit for mass-production on an assembly line. There’s a sense that, while its architecture “may be a nod/to craftsmanship,” the table is a “dismissal of same.” The concurrence of the “nod” and “dismissal”—of the table’s status as a protagonist of “craftsmanship” and antagonist to “same[ness]”—certainly manifests Armantrout’s Cheshire poetics. But above all, such concurrence questions whether it is possible to reconcile the highly precise skill of the craftsman with the uniform generality of the craftsman’s creation. It questions whether speaking about a highly precise context—the “early Machine Age”—and a highly precise subject—the “antique” table—is reductive. Anti-chiral, even. If the self, in other words, speaks in as many voices as it has asymmetrical images, then to extol craftsmanship is to privilege one highly precise voice over the rest—is to treat the self, in essence, as if it had only one voice or, even worse, as if all its voices produced the same sounds. To extol craftsmanship, then, is to silence the ‘I,’ to shut it up in “mute simplicity.”
Shut up in the highly precise enjambed lines of her own craftsmanship, Armantrout chooses to free herself through prose. The third section of “Eden,” in interspersing dogma with snippets of dialogue, characterizes the self as less an organic and more a man-made construct. “Turning yourself into an admirable character/has been considered gauche for as long as I can recall,” Armantrout states. At the same time that the poet expresses distaste in self-promotion, she accepts that the self is unfixed. That we can “turn ourselves into” other personas with different attributes highlights the deceit implicit in the process of self-creation. But it’s a deceit that Armantrout has come to find utilitarian. Turning yourself into a mysterious character is acceptable, she advises, because “the mystification surrounding the unflattering self-portrait/at least provides some cover.” And we need this cover to project the coherence that the self inherently lacks. In the last stanza, however, Armantrout addresses a counter-argument to such justification. “Now someone will say, ‘You don’t need cover/unless you’re standing naked at a window/shouting, ‘Look up here!.’” Redirecting our vision, the poem’s final line implies that we are somehow spatially below, that we have already fallen from Eden. Offering latitude as would a compass, it may imply, too, that we are still lost and abandoned in the “story/made of trees.” Coming from the mouth of “someone” speaking from the psyche of “you,” it may imply, more significantly, that our words and thoughts aren’t entirely our own.
There are six degrees of separation when it comes to lexicon, “Eden” indicates, and this overlapping connectivity points to the self’s genesis. In linking the three demarcated sections, Armantrout narrates our origin story as if it were pasted and taped together with recycled scraps. The introduction—concerned with the semantics of “about and refrain”— inundates us with words’ alien meanings and, for this reason, seems to echo and reiterate Borges’s fictional Averroes: “There are infinite things on earth; any one of them may be likened to any other.” By the time, however, that Armantrout imagines “someone” proclaiming “‘Look up here!,’” we have come to realize that the self—if it is anything like its pronoun ‘I’—is also an echo, a reiteration. It is hollow. It can be “unattractive” or “admirable” or “gauche” or “unflattering” depending upon what it chooses to “turn itself into.” It is contingent , in short, upon variable contexts. We’ve come to realize, then, that while words have alien meanings, the self is an alien being: it is meaning-less or so meaning-full that its meaning evades, supplanting “transparency” with “mystification.” Armantrout, it could be said, inserts the adjective “estranged” in Rimbaud’s postulation: “I am another.” To identify the self, after all, is to estrange the self because identification is, as Averroes’ observes, grounded in likening the self “with” or “as” another.
If no individual can claim her words or herself, the poet’s craft is in a precarious state— and Armantrout knows this. “Give me your spurt/of verbs/your welter/of pronouns,” she announces soon thereafter in “Expressions,” but to whom we know not. Perhaps, her audience is the man, whom we encounter in a later poem, “on a traffic island,” waving his arms and trying to conduct the “spurt” and “welter” of language’s flow—an ineluctable modality of the visible. The man’s waving, however, is, like Armantrout’s command, futile. He “gets no points/for originality” and neither does the poet. We’re doomed, to wallow in “extra appendages,” wearing “someone else’s exoskeleton”—maybe that of the spongy decorator crab adorning the cover jacket of Itself. Marcocoeloma trispinosum, among the most primitive organisms living in the zoanthids colony, uses other creatures to decorate itself: it attaches, that is, a variety of living and nonliving material to its carapace as camouflage.
This is one of nature’s most effective survival mechanisms, scientists assert—and, Armantrout seems to assert in kind— it is one of the poet’s most effective survival mechanisms, too. Towards the end of Itself, Armantrout compares the crab’s costume to the self’s conglomerate of “quick/Moebius strips.” A surface with one side and one boundary, the Moebius strip— Armantrout describes by citing Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”— “Makes me end/where I begun.” When cut in half, the “one/continuous stroke” made “without lifting/the pen,” produces two Moebius strips. One has one-third of the width and the same length as the original; the other has one-third of the width and twice the length of the original. Though these iterations seem to follow Zeno’s trajectory— halving and halving again until the cutter is left with an ad infinitum paradox of sorts—the paper fragments are, like the self’s dispersed multitudes, chiral. No strip is identical to another. Though reliant upon a quasi-derivative predecessor, each is unlike its predecessor and unlike, too, its other half. What happens, Armantrout wonders, when Moebius strips “fail to attach” and the once “continuous stroke” ruptures? The poet, Armantrout answers in an ars poetica, has an abundance of “phoneme clusters.” And she can use these clusters, in turn, to at once “follow a familiar trail” and devour this trail—to “see/double” and rub her crossed eyes—to strip search the self.
Rae Armantrout is the author of eleven previous books of poetry, including Just Saying, Money Shot, and Versed, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award. She is a professor of writing and literature at the University of California, San Diego. This is her twelfth book.
by Rae Armantrout
Wesleyan Poetry Series, 2015
$24.95 paperback, ISBN: 978-0-819-57467-1