Money Shot by Rae Armantrout (2011 Weslayan University Press)
When I emailed Rae Armantrout in 2009, desperate to get a copy of her ‘Early Poems’, a book of collected works that was supposed to have been published several months earlier, she seemed gloomy on the other end of the email. She told me the book was unlikely to ever be published. I later found out the publisher was having financial difficulties in what seemed like a depressing symptom of the economic crisis that had just hit. She said she had another collection about to come out through Weslayan University Press. That was ‘Versed’ which I bought and reviewed on my blog shortly after. Six months later it had won the Pulitzer Prize and Rae Armantrout was now a household name, well, in the household of poetry anyway.
Two years on, the book of ‘Early Poems’ still hasn’t arrived and presumably the publishing house has disappeared as so many other businesses around the world have. And since ‘Versed’ America has changed, its economic and moral power has begun to waiver, the dollar has plunged, the country is in heavy debt to China and the wars in the Middle East have become increasingly drawn out and pointless.
In this time Armantrout’s poems have become unsettled and raw, there is an immediacy and frankness that perhaps wasn’t there before. I know some people will be scoff at the word ‘frankness’ to describe Armantrout’s work, which is fair enough in many ways, but it is frankness of emotion I get from Armantrout and that is what lifts her work out of the vast lake of experimental American poetry, the poems’ ability to wear their hearts on their sleeves, yet still remain mysterious and elusive. I guess you could say, they have their sleeves on their hearts.
Her new collection, Money Shot, deals with America’s issues not so much head on like a simple argument for or against, but discreetly, around the back, unable to ‘say’ what they mean other than through the appropriation of language and the brief moments that make up people’s lives. These are poems of the times, but not necessarily about the times.
The lines and stanzas in Money Shot are curt and get to the meat early, as Armantrout is well known for. They mix the language of science, market forces and occasionally, pornography, but it is the human moments that interest the most, they are the cogs that make the parts move in these tiny poetry machines. Armantrout seems aware of this and how easily a poem about finance, science and performance sex can become cold and detached. This is something she seems intent on proving as if to show the economists (and perhaps the pornographers) of the world that people are the valuable ingredient they have overlooked.
The second section of the title poem deals with this expertly as well as her ongoing theme of the things unsaid:
I’m on a crowded ship
And I’ve been served the wrong breakfast.
This small mound
of soggy dough
is not what I ordered.
“Why don’t you say
What you mean?”
Why don’t I?
Often the poems are like tightly wound springs ready to explode. There is a conscious pressure and feeling of events closing in, a prompt for action, like in Prayers:
in my back
rising to be recognized
The blue triangles
on the rug
on the uses
that all this
that it won’t.
And there is often a downward gaze, away from these larger issues, a focus on the menial patterns of life, of luxury. The ‘blue triangles’ on a rug and later in Exact, the command to:
quick, before you die,
the exact shade
of this hotel carpet.
In these patterns and the small overlooked details Armantrout seems to be asking questions, not so much of the world or the reader, but of her poems. She wants to understand and the poems are her fingerprint analyses, her DNA tests, the methods find the methods that got us here. And sometimes in the echo of a word or the half-fingerprint of a phrase she manages to say exactly what she means.
Bill Nelson is a poet and blogger. He grew up in South Auckland and now lives in Wellington. He won the Biggs Poetry Prize for best MA poetry portfolio at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2009. His writing has appeared in Hue & Cry, Sport, The Lumière Reader, Blackmail Press, 4th Floor and Swamp. He has also guest edited at Turbine and Blackmail Press. You can read his poem 'Giant Steps' on the Best New Zealand Poems 2010 website.