Friday, August 05, 2011

Rae Armantrout - Money Shot - Nick Sturm

Because The Laurel Review is a fairly low-circulation journal, I've decided to start posting some of the reviews from it here. This review is in the forthcoming issue, which is at the printer right now.

On Rae Armantrout’s Money Shot
Nick Sturm

“Staging,” the first poem in Rae Armantrout’s Money Shot, begins massively:

Everything will be made new.

The precision coupling
and uncoupling,

the studied
and folding

have already begun.

Use these lines as a means of understanding how these poems operate: taut direct statements will be rigged to detonate, the tension created by opposition will create a friction that makes disjunction both explicit and ambiguous, and language will be stripped (an ambiguously appropriate verb) and used to simultaneously erect (another appropriate verb) and raze our expectations of these poems, as well as what we thought was a secure, stable understanding of our current situation. In other words, you will leave this book shocked and exhilarated, feeling a bit defiant and ripped at your now-quite-visible seams. You will be finishing the first poem in this book and be presented with the lines, “The spray / of all possible paths.” Then you will read the last line, looking for a moment of cohesion, some kind of revelation, and you will receive neither; instead, a terse, audacious voice will make everything new: “Define possible.”

And there are a lot of possibilities. Which is exciting, and frightening. Even the book’s title, Money Shot, is packed with referential pressure. The most common and provocative reference is to the moment of the male orgasm in porn films, raising issues about the exploitation of the body, the gendered quality of language, and the commodification of pleasure. However, a money shot can also refer to the most expensive scene in a movie, or an intensely physical or emotional scene, and also to the moment when, on a surveillance tape, a gunman is seen reaching over the counter at a convenience store to take the money. But separated from one another, as Armantrout would surely require that we consider, the words ‘money’ and ‘shot’ point towards a cluster of ideas swirling around concepts of worth, violence, manipulation, privilege, and control. These poems are interested in utilizing the anxiety between the singular and the multiple inherent in this language in order to invest a necessary amount of doubt and wonder into our myths about gender, economics, and politics.

In “Soft Money,” all of these factors come together with a clever dose of reimagined language.

They’re sexy
because they’re needy,
which degrades them.

They’re sexy because
they don’t need you.

They’re sexy because they pretend
not to need you,

but they’re lying,
which degrades them.

They’re beneath you
and it’s hot.

The ambiguity of the pronouns makes these lines unusually disconcerting. Furthermore, the sexual and social vagueness of “beneath you” is an example of Armantrout stretching language to its most illuminating limits. The poem ends with an amazing moment of twisted sexual language: “They want to be you, / but can’t, // which is so hot.”

Another apt example of Armantrout’s interest in politics and the self occurs in “Spin,” a poem in three short parts, each of which considers the idea of the self and language, and how these things are spinning or spun.

That we are composed
of dimensionless points

which nonetheless spin,

which nonetheless exist
in space,

which is a mapping
of dimensions.


The pundit says
the candidate’s speech
“all the right points,”

hit “fed-up” but “not bitter,”
hit “not hearkening back.”


Light strikes our eyes
and we say, “Look there!

The self is an accumulation of disjunctive pieces, the poem seems to suggest, and our participation in the world can be reduced to series of reactions to stimuli. Politics, perhaps the most volatile stimulus of opinion, and therefore identity, is revealed by Armantrout to be nothing more than a game of dead rhetoric, a spinning of language to fit a particular ideology. One might call to mind a certain conservative opinion maker who claims to exist in a no spin zone, and how the very declaration of such a space is a rhetorical contradiction, a bloated, preemptive assertion of truth. No, these poems are not concerned with truth, but they are more than willing to point to the spaces between what we think of as true, and in doing so, make us question those truths. From “Day”:

It flashes
but doesn’t gather.

It rhymes and does not

There is no wholeness, no affirmation, but there is music, and the need to confront what masquerades as absolute. From “Following”:

We think things moving in tandem
are parts
of some larger being.

We think
things coming in order
move in tandem.

Daybreak and nightfall
are parts
of some larger being –

someone perfect

and impervious
to grief.

If truth is perfection, says the poet, than truth is devoid of emotion, and how can that be when emotion touches everything? Like Armantrout’s poems, all we have are pieces and parts, fragments and conflicts, and it is our responsibility to revel in the pressure created between these bodies of language. That these poems continually resist resolution is one of the most engaging aspects of Money Shot. The second section of the book’s title poem is the essential example of this resistance.

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 just say
what you mean?”

Why don’t I?

Cut short of the money shot, these lines not only emphasize the grotesque absurdity of luxury, they stress the importance of defying the acceptance of the idea as is, suggesting that there is an alternative space between clarity and confusion where the energy of “what you mean” is all the more clear and baffling because of the ambiguity that surrounds and informs it. Though an obvious contradiction, one could call Armantrout’s poems an exercise in precise ambiguity. That these poems can contain such a contradiction makes them all the more striking.

What else is striking in these poems is their lack of comparative language. But this is no detriment. What is real is more than enough. From “Measure”:

I am not alone in this

A bee has landed,

on a purple tip
of lavender,

pitching in wind.

In the midst of a natural chaos, small piece of hope. But what’s small isn’t always so buoyant. The last section of “Bubble Wrap”:

An immigrant
sells scorpions
of twisted electrical wire
in front of the Rite Aid.

The desperation contained in the image is what is most unsettling, and the social and political repercussions are ours to deal with. Descriptions of the self, and the body, are also jeopardized. From “Outage”:

The body is sprouting grapefruit.

The body is under-
performing in heavy

Armantrout’s fight against cancer is aligned with the failed economy of the body. The poem ends with a proclamation against thinking more about how we say what we mean.

Reception is spotty.

Someone “just like me”
is born
in the future
and I don’t feel a thing?

Like only goes so far.

Indeed, the charged openness of language is itself enough to power these poems. What makes Money Shot such a success is Armantrout’s ability to distill this linguistic energy without compromising the ability of these poems to make lucid associative connections. Though Armantrout is commonly linked with the Language Poets, these poems don’t treat language as inadequate or feel like cold, post-structural experiments. Yes, Armantrout is continually calling into question the language she uses, and these choices are always elegant and amazingly intelligent, but there is genuine emotion in these poems. One can sense the poet’s fears and bewilderments beneath the language, as evasive as that voice may at times try to be. There is something startlingly, crushingly human about the existential crisis in the following lines from “Advent” that make me believe Armantrout at every turn.


Pick out the one
that doesn’t belong.

Let’s play a game, Armantrout seems to say. This game has to do with language, and either it will destroy us or leave us alone on a sunny day. Take your pick.


At 8/05/2011 8:48 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

I know it's not exactly on topic of Armantrout, but it's still poetry and in realm of the furtive: I just came across this. Fascinating and unknown to me. An installation in Bay Area, apparently.


At 8/05/2011 9:59 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

And this YouTube video that goes with the Yasusada section of the installation, absolutely amazing. I think this goes up at NOMA in SF tomorrow, August 6th.

At 8/05/2011 10:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Get your own blog, Kent.

At 8/06/2011 8:38 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Well, the time for poetry blogs has passed, they say.

I'm surprised I wouldn't be encouraged instead to get a Facebok page.

At 8/06/2011 9:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have nothing to say about Kent Johnson, so I'll say something about the subject of the post instead.

One of the things I like best about Armantrout's poetry is how it seems - to me at least - to be talking more directly to the reader than poems/poets usually do.

I know you talked about not doing that sort of thing when talking about a poet in an earlier post, but this isn't putting other poets down. It's describing, or trying to describe, how Armantrout feels to me reading.

The command: "Define possible." That's what keeps bringing me back. Her poems don't just allow possibilities, but demand them of the reader.

- Eric S.

At 8/06/2011 9:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm grateful for the Armantrout poems and critiques posted here. I've been intrigued and inspired by her work, and equally puzzled by it since first finding it online not too long ago.

Examples and essays like this one help me find a way deeper into it.


At 8/06/2011 10:04 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I like reading Armantrout in something like that way as well. There's a conversational directness in the voice in her work that I also see in Ashbery's work, different as they are.

There are many ways the voice is used in poetry. Sometimes it feels more written, sometimes more spoken, more sung, etc.

With Armantrout and Ashbery, I really just love how I feel they are people speaking to me, even if what they're saying I can't always catch.

At 8/06/2011 10:09 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


That's something I feel is missing in a lot of print culture, and what I thought blogs were going to open a space for, that kind of interactive conversation about something. A dinner party sort of thing. Blogs have kind of let us down, though. Or maybe we've let ourselves down.

At 8/06/2011 10:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Blogs have kind of let us down, though. Or maybe we've let ourselves down."

Well, if it's worth anything, I came to them without any expectations and have found better poetry education than I ever found in school.

The ocasional lapses into tribalism and sketchy infotainment just seem like the price of admission on the interwebs.


At 8/06/2011 1:35 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Looking at graffiti art in Juxtapoz, I had a thought apropos of Armantrout and "a new publishing model." When Burroughs and Gysin described the cut-up method, they said writing was fifty years behind painting. Maybe it's still behind painting. Maybe we could take a lesson from bombers and go out at night and spraypaint our poems on boxcars boxcars boxcars. We could illuminate them, too--to gild the pill. (The drawings at my blog get more page views than the poems.) That'd be easier if you wrote spoon-sized poems like Armantrout's. Walcott might have trouble spraypainting Omeros on a train--though I understand in Mauritania there's a freight train like two miles long...

At 8/06/2011 3:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. American poets should go to Mauritania and spraypaint their blogs on the sides of trains.


At 8/06/2011 3:34 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Absolutely. Illuminated disgusting eyeball poems on trains. "Naked Eye Lunch."

This Mauritanian train is like two miles of spotted hyena cages. The laughing drowns out the choochooing.

Did you know Neil Young owns part of Lionel Trains? He likes to play with model trains.

At 8/06/2011 4:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I started a guerilla project to get poems back on the NYC Subways. They used to have poems on the trains, then switched to pointless, decontextualized prose fragments, and then to ads. So a couple of friends and I made a template that looks like a warning flyer (and unfortunately also like Cliff's Notes) and did a few rounds of spamming.

So far it's just been poems by the approachable dead, but if anyone wants to have their stuff published across Brooklyn and Queens, let me know. We might resurrect the project.


At 8/06/2011 4:30 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Indeed, Neil Young IS way into model trains. It started out as therapy for his son, I think. And he invented some sort of switching device or something?

Poems across trains. I'm all for it. As long as the trains don't start spray painting their poems across us.

At 8/06/2011 4:31 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I suggest Rae Armantrout poems. I think the trains would like that.

At 8/06/2011 4:48 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...


Can you give us a link to your work?

At 8/06/2011 6:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We'd like to a have a real website at some point.

Apologies for the lame Chékespeare mashup.

At 8/06/2011 6:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd love to vandalize with Armantrout, but I feel funny using work from a real live poet without permission.

If anyone knows her and get her ok I'll do it.



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