Fred Muratori

Seeming is Believing

Rae Armantrout
Veil: New and Selected Poems
Wesleyan University Press, 2001
$30 (cloth) / $16.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8195-6450-8

Whether what we sense of this world
is the what of this world only, or the what
of which of several possible worlds
—which what?—something of what we sense
may be true, may be the world, what is, what we sense.
For the rest, a truce is possible...

—William Bronk, "Metonymy as an Approach to the Real World"

While American poetry has harbored its share of chroniclers, transcendentalists, dreamers, confessors, and exhibitionists, it has not quite teemed with skeptics. We have Emily Dickinson's barbed lyrics, certainly; and Stevens, despite his high-gloss settings, knew a thing or two about fool's gold, but few poets have made careers out of really gnawing at our assumptions about reality with the single-mindedness of the late William Bronk, or, in our time, with the uncanny brilliance of Rae Armantrout.

Dickinson famously noted that she knew she was reading poetry if she felt as if the top of her head were taken off. Ron Silliman discerns a similar effect in Armantrout when, in his foreword to Veil. New and Selected Poems, he classes her work with "...the literature of the anti-lyric, those poems that at first glance appear contained and perhaps even simple, but which upon the slightest examination rapidly provoke a sort of vertigo effect as element after element begins to spin wildly toward more radical...possibilities." And vertiginous they are. Armantrout spirits away some gravitational force we've gotten used to—an idea, a word, a "fact" that may not have existed to begin with—leaving us "at the charmed verges of presence" [3], unsupported by our discredited prior knowledge, swaying uneasily above unfamiliar terrain we thought we knew. Like William Bronk, she calls to our attention the overlooked chinks and fissures in the linguistic exoskeleton that stands between us and the experiences it envelops. Throughout her literary career, Armantrout has titled her books—Made to Seem, Necromance, The Pretext, The Veil—to suggest that modes of deception, whether naturally occurring or consciously designed by commercial and political entities, distort our apprehension of who we are and of what surrounds us. Like Dorothy, she has glimpsed the all-powerful Wizard of Oz at home reading the Wall Street Journal, and understands that an ever increasing percentage of what's presented as being "true" is concocted by advertising agencies, television newsmongers, and government spin doctors. And language—the medium within which all this corporate pseudo-reality is packaged—is no help when "Ventriloquy / is the mother tongue." [56] It's collusive, part of the banal sorcery.

But Armantrout is not simply interested in passing her hand through the mirages ("The chosen/contexts of display, //arrangement and arrival." [51]); she assumes that we can recognize them on our own. Of more importance is the moment of recognition itself and the dilemma of uncertainty that results when notions of authority dissipate. In "As We're Told" (another freighted title), a new poem, she writes, "Any fence maintains the other/side is 'without form,'" [120] an observation that could as easily apply to the cultural arrogance of nations as to individuals. Authority rests—tenuously—with subjective, often gender-skewed perception, an idea pointedly if comically illustrated in "Theories":

     What if one pretends

     to restrain the other
     while the other

     to rotate helplessly

     and faster?

     Each finds his mate


     but believes his own

     must excite his partner [118-119]

We are naked emperors convinced of our fine fashion sense, and pretending, seeming, believing are mechanisms of self-deception, each one a method of avoidance, a strategy invoked in opposition to thought. In "Near Rhyme" rational thought is directly counterpoised to belief: "I resent believing / there is someone else present / while I think there isn't." [96] And who has not gone through the guilty motions of public prayer or pledge to mollify others, to keep up the collective illusion of faith when faith is beside the point, almost an insult to the reality of catastrophic moments that require action or compassion rather than unconscious recitations? "What if," as she asks in "Inside Out," "God's only message / is 'Repeat after me?'" [145]

It's this kind of honesty that keeps Armantrout from sounding blithely cynical or thick-skinned. She betrays little bitterness or resentment in conveying her disillusionments—which seem hard-won and painstakingly articulated—but instead imparts a sense of discovery, of transformation. Her hunger for the truth of things and argument for a language capable of embodying it may conjure the cranky ghost of Laura (Riding) Jackson, but Armantrout's polemics are more transparent and subtle, "convincing"—to borrow words from Mark Van Doren—"in the simple way of poetry, the way that leaves us unaware of anything to be convinced about." Hers is a filtering consciousness, not an overtly emotional or explicitly political one (though of course neither of those elements is entirely absent), and as such her poems seem to carry the unbiased weight of documentary evidence, or science.

In reading Veil I found a surprise on nearly every page, my regret on finishing one poem dispelled only by the anticipation of reading the next and by the promise of further surprises on rereading. The book is a striking, substantial collection by a poet who—in a disillusioned literary universe—would be widely acknowledged as one of our finest. That acknowledgment will certainly come, though I suspect that Armantrout will feel some small pang of doubt when it does.


© 2002 Electronic Poetry Review