Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Rae Armantrout and the Emerald Oil Sign

Rae Armantrout’s well-deserved nomination for the National Book Award is good news not only for her, but also for the project of language poetry, which continues to gain national recognition.

Thus it was appropriate that Rae was asked in an interview on January 28th in the Chicago Weekly about her langpo affiliations and her views of it “as a way of writing.” A part of her response suggested that langpo is interactive with the reader, in the sense that s/he must supply a personal interpretation between the individual sections or verses, “where the connections between what came last and what comes next are problematized and open to reader interpretation.”

Her answer came as a quite surprise to me. I never knew I was supposed to construct links between the verses before. Had I failed in my duties as a langpo reader for the past 30 years?

Language poetry always seemed to me a necessary and inevitable development. As life itself becomes digitized and experience transforms into a self-referential reproduction of itself, where else was poetry supposed to go? I’ve always accepted Phil Whalen’s view that one important goal of poetry is to eliminate conditioned discourse, termed by Phil as “the public slobber,” so what other means are left?

It seems a shame that the heritage of our common language semantic is threatened with obliteration, as well as poetry as an expression of individual subjectivity based on meaningful experience, but if that’s what required to remove us from the prevailing slough of vulgarism and stupidity, then so be it.

But I hadn’t realized that the art of reading required me to function as the poet’s doppelgänger inside the poem itself, tasked with re-arranging the furniture. I want to look at the poem “Stretch,” which appears in Rae’s collection Versed. In contrast with the many fine poems in Rae’s book which I really do like, I don’t like this one. The title “Stretch” seems obscure, and the final verse seems to me absurdist, not so much vulgar as simply pointless. I don’t detect any internal logic to the poem, so its elements remain unconnected. The signifiers don’t signify in any manner I can regard as significant, and the poem lacks humor.


Lime green
against dark foliage,
the Emerald Oil sign
gleams alone.

Stars slingshot
round the center
at millions of miles per.

In rest home beds, patients
hang on
as if to love.

Moment to
moment’s stretched

(Body beneath
a wooden plank,

she’s sucking her
grandmother’s cock.)

I thought I would try anyway to connect the elements in the poem -- mobilize "the connections between what came last and what comes next." Alas, it worked only partially. First I envisioned a billboard sign at night along the side of the highway advertising Emerald Oil, while overhead the stars orbited around it.

I thought that Emerald Oil must be one of those Midwestern oil companies I’d never heard of before. But when I googled it, I couldn’t find a U.S. company with that name. In fact I couldn’t find anything at all, except the product shown above.

In the next verse I found myself in a rest home, but I had no idea how I got there – too much Emerald Oil perhaps? To be truthful, I’m not even sure what a rest home is to begin with. I thought of the old joke about the guy who opens his refrigerator door and sees a rabbit sitting there, so he asks the rabbit what it’s doing, and the rabbit says, “This is a Westinghouse isn’t it? Well, I’m westing.” (Don’t ask me why in 1970’s cartoons rabbits lisped a lot.)

I had better luck transitioning to the next verse. Time must go slowly for rest home patients, so therefore time is stretched from one moment to the next. But I am baffled by any connection with the last verse – possibly some kind of feminist allegory where grandfather’s clock is replaced by grandmother’s cock?

It’s time to move on to another poem, since Rae has asked me to connect the dots, and it is clear that I have failed horribly. I realized long ago that I could not be a language poet, but the realization that my skills as a langpo reader are inadequate is painful. It must be the case that only language poets themselves are capable of reading language poetry correctly.

[Photo by AshV at flickr.com. Thanks to Wesleyan Univ Press for their uncommonly good sense in making the entire text of Rae Armantrout's Versed available at http://books.google.com.]

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