Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #7, Spring & Summer 2002]

Veil: New and Selected Poems
By Rae Armantrout
Wesleyan University Press, 2001

Reviewed by Catherine Daly

The poems of Rae Armantrout's which are not prose poems are marked by short lines of less than five words and stanzas as short as one line. The words, lines and stanzas are very condensed and have multiple meanings. Many phrases are quotes or found, nonsequitors, or in the style of a particular mode of discourse if not a quote. For these reasons, her poems are often traced to objectivist influences, particularly to those of George Oppen. The quotes and findings are arranged disjunctively: only some of her poems "read through" in a linear way. The multiple voices of the quotes are not resolved into a single voice, although there is a lyrical "I," a narrator who can be identified with Armantrout, who does ventriloquize some of the voices ("Ventroliquy / is the mother tongue"). There is also a unifying aesthetic in the poems. Thus, some of Armantrout's poetics are traced to the influences of her peers, the Bay area experimental poets who published with The Figures press in the 70s, including Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson. Language poet Ron Silliman, with whom she collaborated on "Engines," included in Veil, wrote the foreword to Veil as well. Still, some of Armantrout's poetics are traced to lyric poetry. Armantrout is considered to be a poet writing the self-aware "analytic lyric," and, as a lyric poet, accessible to readers new to experimental poetry.

While her poems are not long-lined or flowery, Armantrout's aesthetic can be usefully read against a goth aesthetic. Goth was a 1970s and 80s revival of the 1870s and 80s gothic revival symbolists, aesthetes, and decadents. Thomas Hardy's poetry, while not gothic revival poetry, is a poetry which can usefully be read against or accommodates elements of the gothic revival aesthetic, which valued an appearance of spontaneity, surprise, and freakishness. Hardy himself wrote that the gothic revival style, which he had studied during his architecture training, accounted for some of his poetics. David Perkins, in his book A History of Modern Poetry, notes that Hardy complicates his stanzas and phrasing: "...interplaying with grammatical pause and sweep, gives him an unusually rich punctuation, so to speak, which he uses to bring out dramatic development...." Armantrout's poetry, far more disjunctive than other lyric poems, and written as free verse, uses both the space around the small poems and the pauses within them, to create drama. In the poem "View," quoted below in its entirety, this drama is the substance of the poem, and the pauses, eccentric punctuation, capitalization, indentation, and other spacing create the drama:

The natural world indicated by the human effort of repeating, offsetting, and otherwise marking "the moon" is paradoxically more dramatic and desirable than human efforts phrased in colloquial speech chosen for "o" sounds ("none of our own doing").

Goth differs in important respects from both Hardy's gothic revival and the contemporary neo-goth, a popular musical style. For example, in the intervening years, the confessional poets influenced ellipticism and American academic lyric poetry as a whole. Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton dramatized situations, focussed attention on deviations from the norm which upset expectations, and especially Sexton and Plath used German fairy tale plot and character as metaphorical structure. They were influenced by Charles Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal and by the Celtic Twilight and Yeats. Armantrout alludes to particularly the German fairy tales (rather than Hans Christian Andersen's, for example) in poems such as "Generation" and particularly "Xenophobia": "Horrific. Grisly. / "Rumplestiltskin!" [Spelling is "Rumpelstiltskin" in my edition of Grimm, edited by Celtic Twilight poet Padraic Colum and blurbed by W.H. Auden.]

The poppy which begins "Necromance" -- "Poppy under a young // pepper tree, she thinks" -- is both the California poppy (Armantrout is a Californian) and the aesthetic opium poppy. The "she" in the poem is a housewife and a siren. Armantrout returns to domestic scenes repeatedly, and finds fairy tales lurking behind such pop culture artifacts as Green Giant frozen vegetable commercials, and disorienting fairy tale forests in books made of trees.

Among the later goth features in the poetry are the word "morbid," used repeatedly in poems, a focus on death, insects (spiders, flies, and ants appear), monsters, moons, and rickety Victorian houses. The title "Necromance" not only seems goth, but means something like romance of the dead, which is quite different from nostalgia. Within this contemporary poetry which mentions "goth" touchstones is a tension between romance and realism which discards memory and place (nostalgia) and focuses instead on fragments which have survived. The poems dramatically indicate the original contexts of these fragments, which context is quite dead. Even in the title "Made to Seem," "made"/"maid" and "seem"/"seam" are frankensteinian.

Armantrout is aestheticizing the world by dramatizing it. There is not only drama, but also surrealist melodrama, in each stanza and in the spaces around it. It is not just coincidental that surrealists as well as the New York School poets identified a different legacy in the same symbolist, decadent, and aesthetic poetries than the confessional poets did. "Super realism" has had an influence on contemporary experimental realist poetry. Reading Armantrout's poems through gothic revival and goth lenses reveals a reality which is equally indebted to two poetry camps' readings of symbolist, aesthetic, and decadent literature.

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Catherine Daly's reviews have been published online and in print by a variety of publications, including The Boston Review, Rain Taxi, and Savoy.

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