‘Next Life’ By Rae Armantrout

Next LifeRae Armantrout reminds me of Kay Ryan. Maybe it should be the other way, but I read Kay Ryan first, so there you have it.

Armantrout is more intensive, sadder, more melancholy, more interior, and maybe more urban. I’m not sure about that last one. It’s not that Armantrout writes about cities and Ryan writes so much about nature or the country, but Armantrout’s ‘voices’ are not of people living close to nature. I don’t know. Anti-pastoral voices, perhaps?

Her short, abrupt lines and abrupt (though never jarring) enjambments and brief, tangentially connected stanzas convey a voice trying to pierce through the overwhelming haze of sensory overload. Not a uniquely contemporary sensory overload (‘curse the internet and television for their incessant distractions!’). No, this is more ancient, though still modern. Think Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents.

The poems are implicitly political in their critique of society, though she stumbles when becoming explicitly political. There is a poem that ends by drawing a metaphorically comparison between a cat licking himself and Fox News and, yeah, it’s funny and I can’t say it’s wrong, but all it does it paper over a certain triteness and a too, too direct manner. Armantrout excels at obliqueness.

Similarly, a prose poem loses the effects she achieves elsewhere and never convinces me that this particular poem had to be a prose poem. A prose poem must have a reason for being what it is. I’m not saying a reason that can explained in words, but like obscenity, I know it when I see it. And I don’t see it.

She is an amazing poet. I’m looking forward to having her sign it when she comes to read the Folger Shakespeare Library next month.

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