[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
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"
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.
Catherine Daly's reviews have been published online and in print by a variety
of publications, including The Boston Review, Rain Taxi, and
CBR Home | Reviews | Excerpts
& Features | Guidelines | CBR