Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
Rae Armantrout draws on the language of physics to explore modern life.
Photograph: Mark Lehmkuhler
Wesleyan University Press, $24.95 (cloth)
Rae Armantrout’s Itself returns to familiar ground: questioning how and why language matters and can be made to matter. Yet the collection is distinct from her earlier work, taking its primary inspiration from recent developments in science and invoking especially the concept of chirality, the property of an asymmetrical object whose mirror image cannot be superimposed on itself.
In a 2015 interview with Adam Fitzgerald, Armantrout spoke of the influence of Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’s book The Quantum Universe (2011) and of a 2013 film, Particle Fever, about the discovery of the Higgs boson, one of the fundamental particles of nature. When she asks “what it means / to pass through the void,” in the poem “Chirality,” she considers the figurative weight of words, of her poems themselves. When the speaker of the eponymous poem “Itself” notes, “I work it / until sweetness / rises / on itself, / then arcs across, / unfurling petals, / and is gone,” the poem resembles the elusive Higgs—disappearing almost as soon as it is observed.
Itself analyzes the space between significant developments in human history and the minutiae of everyday experience. In this way, the Higgs boson becomes a conceit: discussions of modern science give weight to the seemingly insignificant details of our lives. Plastic buckets, pill bottles, a toy space ship, a Coca-Cola truck, Valentine’s Day hearts, television, a plastic soap dish, Bliss soap, window decals, a minivan, Cinderella’s evening gown, and “machine-dyed, glitter-drizzled / elephants” are important objects in her poems’ landscapes. In “Fundamentals,” Armantrout wonders why infinitely small is “just / unthinkable,” for “The thought / of a smaller // bit inside / each bit // goes nowhere / still // has symmetry / going on // and on / about it.” Here and throughout the collection, Armantrout collapses the divide between what is fundamental and what is trivial.
Armantrout repeatedly examines “what it means / to pass through the void.”
As in her previous collection Just Saying (2013), the poems in Itself make meaning through connections—tenuous or substantial. Armantrout grounds her discussion of poetic language in scientific discourse, beginning with an epigraph from Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction (2014): “The animals themselves occupied only the last and largest chamber; the rest were filled with air. The walls between the chambers, known as septa, were fantastically elaborate, folded into intricate ruffles.” In the chapter “The Luck of the Ammonites,” Kolbert writes that this “evolutionary development allowed ammonites to build shells that were at once light and robust—capable of withstanding many atmospheres’ worth of water pressure.” Armantrout’s new collection can be read as a study of the poet’s work as another kind of “evolutionary development.” Divided into three parts—“Itself,” “Membrane,” and “Live Through”—the collection celebrates the power of words to convey meaning. But Armantrout also dwells on instances when language ceases to matter, when words appear insubstantial and unsustainable.
Published five years after Armantrout received the Pulitzer Prize for Versed (2010), Itself seems to question the significance of her work in the landscape of contemporary poetry. She also moves beyond her poems to consider the significance of human works, creations, and the human. In “Friends,” the speaker tells herself, “‘I’m all used up . . . all gone’” but concludes, “like that was some new / kind of luxury— / one I could afford!” The collection begins with the threat of a “sixth extinction,” and now Armantrout is wondering what it means to be “used up” and “gone.” But these musings are generative, even regenerative. In “The Pull,” she writes,
Inspiration is 98%
pulling a trope
from one medium
into another so that
of its substance
is wrung out.
We sustain ourselves
Here we see traces of John Barth’s debates in “The Literature of Exhaustion” and “The Literature of Replenishment,” explorations of the limitations and possibilities of generating original creative work. In Itself , poetry becomes a “space awash / in possibility,” however obscured: the collection is neither mournful nor melancholic, but vibrant, even playful. Meditating on the medium, the poet qualifies and quantifies what can be sustained in poetic form.
These questions are indicative of a larger crisis of representation in contemporary culture. In “A Conceit,” the speaker notes how individuals struggle with the words available to them in a rapidly changing world: “Local anchors list the ways / viewers might enjoy tomorrow.” One anchor stops midsentence while saying, “Get some great . . .” while the other “snickers, meaning, / ‘Where were you going with that?’” Another subject, in the poem “Conclusion,” is a man “upset for many years / because he’s heard / that information is destroyed / in a black hole.” Armantrout plays with the example, calling it a “cry for help” that is nonetheless “accompanied / by the image of a toy space ship, / upended, // and is thus / not to be taken seriously.” The speaker’s question, “What does this man mean / by ‘information’?” resonates throughout the collection, which includes many types of information proffered by science or circulated in popular culture. The man in “Conclusion” “recovers his peace of mind” by conceiving “lost information” in material form, “splattered / on the event // horizon.” However, there is no such comfort for the speaker in “Pitch,” who questions the conception of “fully nuanced, / self-reflexive stanzas” made “widely available” to the public. Nor for another speaker, in “Flo,” who recognizes a cultural crisis in the making of an “American icon.”
Alongside these observations, Armantrout repeatedly examines “what it means / to pass through the void,” gathering data from the cultural field and examining its particulars in order to create meaningful poetry. In the interview with Fitzgerald, she explains, “I like the idea that we can make new, provisional entities out of whatever the world throws at us. I think that’s how we create our personalities—and it’s how I write poems.” Like Campbell McGrath, who surveys the American landscape in Pax Atomica (2004), Armantrout places discrete elements of popular culture under a microscope. An even stronger connection can be made to Adrienne Rich, who explored the “thing itself and not the myth” in Diving into the Wreck (1973). For Armantrout, words are purposes and maps, a series of signposts toward meaning.
Armantrout’s conflation of the fundamental and trivial can be viewed as the key principle of her poststructuralist poetry, which questions its own ability to represent. Suggesting the figure of difference (or différance), chirality is emblematic of the act—and art—of poetic representation. For example, Armantrout says in “The Eye,” “It should be difficult / but not impossible / to transmute / latitude / into a thought / a god could / hold”—that is, poetry is, or has the potential to be, a medium for meaning to “pass through.” Her poems’ lines appear as both “familiar trail[s] // or legible sequence[s]” and “quick / Möbius strips” that “fail to attach.” This engagement with and skepticism about the materiality and discursivity of language recalls Judith Butler’s notion of the “process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter” in Bodies That Matter (1993). In Itself , Armantrout identifies a “new way” of measuring how her body of work, her poetry, matters.
Itself is not an elegiac collection, yet strains of elegy and self-elegy appear when the poet reflects on the concept of passing through. In “Personhood,” the speaker conjures an image of the “recent dead” wearing Victorian clothes as a “flash mob.” The color of their parasols—poppy—suggests remembrance, but their very forms are ephemeral, “figur[ing] / second / to second.” As the speaker indicates, “It’s hard / to hold on / to an idea.” Insubstantial and insatiable figures haunt her landscapes. In “The New Zombie,” the speaker wonders about the possibility of “Viral relics / in the genome” before dismissing the “Zombie surfeit” in contemporary culture. Here again is a debate about replenishment and exhaustion, sustenance and extinction, reintroducing questions about what is and should be re-membered.
Reflecting on the limits of her medium and crossing over into the lexicon and concepts of the physical sciences, Armantrout says she is “drawn to edges, borders, say, between being and non-being, life and the inanimate, continuing and going on.” Itself is a meditation on this liminality, continually “Skirting / the edge of // what can, / could have been // meant.” “Clearance” highlights this concept in the lines “A clear still / day, only // the butterflies / reel // as ever.” “Reel” suggests both the butterflies’ motion as they whirl and circle and their unreality, their existence as pure image. The butterflies appear to be “touching / on nothing.” Here, as in “You,” the “word means nothing, / anything,” perhaps everything.
In “The Ether” (2015), Armantrout writes,
to say “essence”
now that it’s understood
to mean ether,
a kind of filler
the Planck length
The poem deploys several images from the history of science, from “ether” to “essence” to “Planck length”—the tiny unit of length at which quantum effects become significant. The poem speaks back to an earlier one, also called “The Ether” (2006). There she writes,
The room is ether-bright,
adrift in words
or I am
refusing to dissolve.
to be taken away;
to be added.
What can words say?
Here again is “Chirality”: the two poems are similar and distinct. In the earlier poem, the ether is composed by words “refusing to dissolve.” The 2015 poem redefines its constitution as “essence.” Armantrout’s return to the ether ironically solidifies her presence in the American literary tradition. With Itself , she redefines the space that poetry inhabits and creates. It is “awash in possibility,” setting the stage for her new collection Partly: New and Selected Poems , due out in August. Examining and celebrating the complexities of the human experience, Armantrout ends Itself with a directive: “Just put words / down, one // after the last. // Just get out / in time. / Of there.” She conceives a time and place “past the end / . . . where things / get fuzzy, / less thingy,” more hopeful for the future of poetry.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.