Reading Rae Armantrout’s Money Shot
In “The Man On The Dump,” Wallace Stevens rhapsodizes on the aesthetic desire to propel oneself into the poetic ether, beyond traditional clichéd figurations, while still remaining grounded in reality. The dump represents all that is hackneyed and predictable, the overused and staid metaphors that poets have employed in past eras.
The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green
Smacks like fresh water in a can, like the sea
On a cocoanut — how many men have copied dew
For buttons, how many women have covered themselves
With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads
Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.
One grows to hate these things except on the dump.
Stevens exfoliates the metaphors and symbols that once enlightened us, but now, from overuse, impede us from seeing reality anew. When there is a breakthrough it has an awesome significance of primal experience.
That’s the moment when the moon creeps up
To the bubbling of bassoons. That’s the time
One looks at the elephant-colorings of tires.
Everything is shed; and the moon comes up as the moon
(All its images are in the dump) and you see
As a man (not like an image of a man),
You see the moon rise in the empty sky.
Finally, Stevens finds his way to the core question: “Could it after all/Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear/To a crow’s voice? . . . Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.” Through his relentless pursuit of underlying realities, Stevens is forced to question whether there can be any such thing as the “truth.”
As Stevens, Rae Armantrout writes to expose the raw bone that exists under the skin of the facades of everyday life. Her willful rejection of accepted cant was observed years ago by Stephen Burt: “Compact and as densely patterned as silicon chips, Armantrout’s brief stanzas are skeptical about almost every source of human confidence, trust, hope, joy, strength or belief.”[i]. As any socially aware child growing up in the 1960’s, Armantrout has an almost pathological suspicion of any given paradigm that we are expected to accept, whether it be government action, corporate advertisement or religious doctrine. In Armantrout’s lifetime, this jaundiced viewpoint is repeatedly nourished by cultural history, from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Nixon’s “October Surprise” and Watergate, to the bogus search for WMD’s in Iraq, the outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame, and economic policies that caused the Great Recession. Clearly these events play into the collective paranoia that can only be described as Pynchonian because of the relentless plots and subplots that must be uncovered to lay bare the lies.
In her masterwork, Money Shot, Armantrout focuses her ontological microscope to examine these eventful times, using the current financial crisis of the Great Recession as her principal focus. The poems employ the familiar form of prosody that Armantrout has made the cynosure of the Language poets. As William Montgomery commented in his penetrating review,
Hank Lazer wrote more than a decade ago of the way the “mysticism of the particular” in Armantrout was always undercut by a lyrical “swerve.” In Money Shot, the swerve remains crucial: the glitch in the “smooth passage” of the poem, the hiccup of the line break, the kickback of irony, the suggestive lacunae that arise from a compulsively laconic style.[ii]
However Armantrout’s style is described, it is now seamlessly incorporated into a living mode of expression that is capable of evoking a full spectrum of insight and feeling.
Armantrout’s technique is exploratory.[iii]. She juxtaposes seemingly unrelated ideas and organizes them, often randomly, to evoke surprisingly intellectual and emotional resonances. In contrast to Pound’s imagism, Armantrout’s system of organization dislocates traditional associations in order to expose their underlying presumptions. This comports with post-modern theory of aesthetic form, as Joseph Frank has succinctly stated,
Aesthetic form in modern poetry, then, is based on a space-logic that demands a complete reorientation in the reader’s attitude toward language. Since the primary reference of any word-group is to something inside the poem itself, language in modern poetry is really reflexive. The meaning-relationship is completed only by the simultaneous perception in space of word-groups that have no comprehensible relation to each other when read consecutively in time. Instead of the instinctive and immediate reference of words and word-groups to the objects or events they symbolize and the construction of meaning from the sequence of these references, modern poetry asks its readers to suspend the process of individual reference temporarily until the entire pattern of internal references can be apprehended as a unity.[iv]
In Armantrout’s work, malleable sense impressions arise as one moves through a poem, like a “scatter/ of cold cases” that make “two/ separate strings . . . unwrapping our surprise” (“Along”). In this way, her technique becomes more reflective of the way life surprises us.
In the volume’s first poem, “Staging,” Armantrout promises, “Everything will be made new,” an apparent gesture of obeisance toward Ezra Pound’s “make it new” dictum. While Pound approached the problem of restoring vitality to poetry through expressive novelty, Armantrout, the “Language poet,” aims for vitality in our everyday existence by examining the ways we think, a pursuit that has more practical cultural implications beyond the art of poetry.
Armantrout begins with a fundamental inquiry in the final line of “Staging”: “Define possible.” When we are urged to “define possible” of the given, the presented paradigm [Wittgenstein’s “all that is in the case”] becomes subject to scrutiny and at least temporarily suspect. This is serious stuff when traditional conceptions keep us economically, politically or religiously wedded to given intellectual constructs, thereby influencing the way we spend the blood, sweat and tears of our lives. Whether it be the way we confine ourselves and others to fixed assets within the sexual, cultural, political or economic fields, or demonstrative of how we use wealth and politics vis-a-vis the general welfare, these are the themes that occupy any contemporary poet worth his or her salt. Armantrout examines different facets of these issues in poem after poem, so that the drift of her thoughts impel us toward a heightened awareness of the uncertainty of all we thought we knew. She universalizes this sense of doubt by varying the subject matter, which not only references the artistic and literary, but the philosophical, psychological, economical and other scientific disciplines.
“In Staging,” the specific array of events that flow from our plans and, ultimately, our thoughts (“The precision coupling/and uncoupling//the studied blocking/and folding”), appear to account for their consequent effect on our lives. But we are often unaware of their specific meaning until much later. The quiet repose of the domestic setting invoked by the “Stillness of gauzy curtains” is opposed to the remote activity and industry in “the sound/of distant vacuums.” These images have an associative pattern and create a perception of reality that our minds amplify by filling in the gaps, as they do when we read about the “prolonged sigh/of traffic//and the downward curve of fronds”[v] where we succumb to the anthropomorphic mien of sorrow. The feeling that something is brooding in the background is made clearer later, in “Bubble Wrap,” where Armantrout again uses the “vacuum” metaphor to describe the money being sucked out of the financial system. So the composite of images in “Staging” tend to be even more affecting, in retrospect, as the distinctive signs of the impending financial collapse. [As we came to find out, the financial system foundered on false assumptions of security, and this is precisely the thrust of Armantrout’s work.]
The closing lines in “Staging,” which question what “paths” are within the realm of the “possible,” is then pursued by “Colony,” where “virtual particles” are used to fill the reality gaps in the mind’s quantum leaps (which are even “obscure” to God). The unsettling and ultimately false choice that must follow in connection with such quantum leaps (“Which one of these/do you most closely resemble?”) is then converted into the image of a jelly fish whose “semi-transparent” stinging tentacles form a “colony” of imputed meanings. The given paradigm, as a creature of these quantum leaps between evanescent fictions, gives way to a threatening sense of unease.
Armantrout then makes a logical transition in the fittingly entitled poem, “The Given,” which is composed in three sections. In the first section, fertilzation[vi] materially transforms the bourgainvillea into “papier-mâché boxes,” a rational or irrational result depending upon what is literally or imaginatively “possible.” In the third section, Armantrout exhibits a partial economic analysis, quoting an authoritive-sounding text, that correlates the bursting of market bubbles to pricing. Only two words (in the second section), “Availability bias,” become the central connection between the fiction of the papier-mâché boxes born of bourgainvillea and the fiction of the financial analysis being trotted out as doctrine. “Bias” becomes the vehicle of convenience for our belief systems, and in the financial crisis there was no dearth of examples. Any reading of the tea leaves by the former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan, will soon convince the uninitiated that the language used by the economists is as figurative as any poetic trope. In this way, Armantrout achieves an Ashberian level of comprehension with the compressive strength of haiku.
Thus, the first three poems, which attempt to reveal the ghostly interstices of those crucial assumptions upon which our lives seem to depend, introduce the volume’s title poem (quoted in full here):
Able to exploit pre-
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?
“IndyMac” is a contraction for the Independent National Mortgage Corp. that sold toxic loans and became the fourth largest banking failure in U.S. history. The use of pseudo-contractions (“Per.In. Con./Cyst.”) abounds in the first section of the poem, almost teasing us to draw the obvious connection to the economic “contraction” and the often bogus fictions belied by the self-important nomenclature used by the financial industry. That these may “pertain” to and “contain” inconsistencies is obvious from Armantrout’s contractions, which also recall the abbreviations of public stock symbols.
Yet Armantrout reorients the disaster scenario by adding a banal anecdote (about being on a crowded ship and then served the “wrong breakfast” of a “small mound/ of soggy dough” which “is not what I ordered” ) and then following it with a rhetorical question, presumably from a reader, with the poet’s quizzical response (“Why don’t you just say/ what you mean?’ // Why don’t I?”). In this context the question and answer are disingenuous at best, because even the most commonplace of analogies, as set forth here, fails to serve its purpose as something that informs us as poetry does. The poet’s function is other than as a mere news reporter. The obdurate crust of our everyday life, with its “chains” of given perceptions of the world, can only be pierced by engaging in the sophisticated (hence, difficult) forms of analysis and expression that great understanding requires. If anything, we have proved to ourselves that we tend to oversimplify matters and then become frustrated when our formulation of the problem fails to yield a facile solution. This is a different way, perhaps, of reaching beyond the exasperation of T.S.Eliot’s Prufrock: “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” In Armantrout’s view, it is not an inherent failure of language that impedes us, but the conflicting and confining cultural paradigms that abound and frustrate meaningful communication, finally with significant consequences.
While reviewers have made much of Money Shot’s reference to the porn industry[vii], “money shot” is traditional film-making parlance for the movie scene, usually one that is the most sensational and memorable, that costs the most money to produce. For Armantrout, the title refers to the tragic financial melt-down of 2008, and I take Armantrout to mean that the Great Recession is the “money shot” of the post-World War II generation (or the 21st century complement to the previous century’s Great Depression.). Of course, one can also infer that the inordinate greed of the times climaxed in an episode as degrading as a porn movie “facial,” but the text eschews that construction.[viii]
At the center of Money Shot is Armantrout’s conviction that the pursuit of materialistic success has not reaped the type of capital that really matters. The wish fulfilment model of “Prayers” (“We pray/and the resurrection happens”) adverts to a tableau of childishness (“sniping and giggling//tingly/as ringing telephones”) associated with self-centered pleas to the divine, which is opposed to the desire for “momentum,” which for Armantrout is the highest aspiration of personal and collective growth. This aspiration is limited to “thinking,” and does not necessarily embrace other forms of material growth or success, although we would like to believe that true knowledge would benefit the public weal. While the words “sniping,” “targets,” and “torture” have obvious connotations to the wars in the Middle East, it is too facile and delimiting to confine the poem to purely anti-war sentiments. The real battle is for personal viability where culture, society, business and government attempt to usurp one’s individuality. Mortality (“The pressure/in my lower back”), juxtaposed to a symbol of ambiguous artistic movement (“blue triangles/on the rug/repeating”), juxtaposed to the bright media-speak, “Coming up” (not a word from our sponsors, but “a discussion/on the uses of torture”), set forth competing considerations. The poem ends with the psychological antipathy of the conundrum:
that all this
that it won’t.
This “fear” lies at the core of our existence: the fear of abandoning the given, because to completely do so would lead to madness, and the fear that the given is intolerable and likewise maddening. Armantrout amplifies the paradox (like the “Russell antinomy”) by finding the horns of the dilemma in unverifiable perceptions, as in “Spooks”:
that the flip side
can be read
is one kind
is the sense
of an occluded bulk
beyond the surface
Armantrout’s poetic technique depends upon these tensions and paradoxes. Consequently, we are suspended between what appear to be irresistible illusions, as she states in “Garden”:
but it’s the liminal
the area between
sleep and waking up
we think we remember
that we still want.
Many poems point to this imaginative twilight, for example, “Border Protection” (where “Horizons/ snap into focus// while shadows/ are distended, smudged.//. . .//It’s happening again/ we take// discrepancies/ for openings”). The poem, with an apparent allusion to the immigration problem, fixes on the ironic depiction of a “demented” guy who impatiently asks “what we’re waiting for.” Stasis breeds confusion, the opposite of the “movement” across borders that we all crave. Unfortunately, we seem stuck in this no man’s land, unable to move, a failure of our ontological immigration policy.
So Armantrout is doubtful of the end result, in herself as in her reader’s response. In “Day,” whatever the poem’s truth, “It flashes/but doesn’t gather. // It rhymes and does not/ confirm.” In “Cancellation,” the most the poet can achieve is rapprochement with the reader, a mutual cancelling out of each other’s viewpoints: “The idea that,/ if you believe me,/ our two beliefs/ will cancel one another out.” In “Recording,” traditional forms in the “old city,” and the “familiar chains at home” offer little relief to the “singular and strangeness” of the present, and so we must “learn by feel.” Nevertheless, the result is ultimately unsatisfying: “I play along, though,/ privately,/ I still have my doubts.”
Unquestionably, Armantrout makes extraordinary demands on her reader. Words have an atomic weight, being freighted with symbolism, allegory and metaphor, and her usage deliberately questions the value of traditional connotations upon which many poetry readers rely. For example, she uses the word “green” in various contexts, but the traditional symbol for life and renewal takes on the symbol of money (“Such earnest, green/gentlemen”) and the putrid (“the sea coughs up//green strands//cold boluses//and swallows them”) in “Long Green.”
Likewise, Armantrout forces the reader to apprehend form and content in its various guises. Because she experiments with her poetry, the resulting resonance, irony, and revelation come as an after-effect, upon re-reading and thinking through her material. So a reader must trust the poet that the added effort will be worth the often grueling work getting there. She is not easily approached when you are accustomed to the music of Eliot, Stevens, Creeley and other lyrical poets. Often Armantrout’s prosody is as dry as the desert heat at the bottom of Death Valley. The lyrical features become evident only when you have spent a long time pruning the thorns among the cactus flowers. Yet, a poem like “Errands,” with its fairytale lightness covering the macabre and sexual underbelly, delivers that unique sense of gratification that few poems can rival.
In Money Shot, Armantrout also asks us to retain characterizations in earlier poems to make connections with later poems, as in “Staging” mentioned above. In “Across” (on p. 6), the divided perception of reality portrayed upon a wooden table’s “oval lake/ of glass//across which/ this morning/ parallel wakes/appear”) is then given additional complexity by the following words, “Of course, ‘across’/ is metaphorical.” Later, in “Win” (on p. 76), which begins with the prospect of winning “a free/cremation,” shes refers to the scatter of grains “aglow” on a “tabletop,” and ends with:
It works for me.
Gracious wood grain
what I like best:
Wood here serves its classic function as a meme for mortality and the passage of time, but to Armantrout, it is the “illusion” that predominates her poem, thus exacting uncertainty from the classic meme and challenging accepted belief. She elaborates this thought further in “The Air”:
Give a meme
Give it a split-screen.
Make it ask itself
the wrong question.
Make it eat questions
and grow long.
Accordingly, the feeling of being on sure-footing with our present reality “feels wrong” when it relies upon the past (“The Agent”). We desire the awareness brought about by working “through” our realities, discriminating “among birdcalls/ fruits, seeds,” so that we break “into awareness,/ falling forward// hurtling inland/in all innocence” (“Sustained”), but we are often undone by our innate ability to draw conclusions from apparent similarities: “what makes us human/is our tendency to point” (“Working Models”). We fall into error when we get sucked into the Charybdis of “the amplified local” (of assumptions), and when we are drawn toward the devolutionary “animal maganitism” of the present. We want the present to look like the past, so we can easily follow the true hero, the true path: “If only he would come again/ as he once was” (“Homer”). But our living present, unlike the past, can never be the clinically removed from the “brain case,” and we cannot speak to it in the “measured,/ disinterested voice,/ … as if/ in retrospect,/ as if/ to another person.” Nevertheless, the realization that “I am not alone in this/ sentence” reflects the interdependency of the past and present, figured with asian-like beauty here: “A bee has landed/carefully,// on a purple tip/ of lavender,//pitching in the wind” (“Measure”).
When we purposely attempt to avoid staid representations and break through to underlying realities, nature often interferes, as in “The Gift,” where the poet rejects a pat Freudian analysis of her imagery:
the image of a fungus
with the image of a dick
in my poem
Nature then provides its own confusing array of events that play with our imaginative stereotypes (the poem continues):
and three days later
a strange toadstool
(white shaft, black cap,
five inches tall)
between the flagstones
in our path.
We are therefore relegated to the “liminal” interpretation of indeterminate manifestations, where the past and present share space:
between fence posts
in which dry leaves
are gently rocked.
The cradle-grave symbolism of “dry leaves/are gently rocked” thus yields to the poet’s own invested figuration of the past suspended between our living reality and our imagination. We are inevitably linked to the past in order for the present to have meaning for us. In fact, although we attempt to flee the restrictive thinking of the past, we instinctively rely upon everything we have experienced for guidance and meaning. Armantrout makes this point in several poems, for example, in “Dream Life”:
I’m surprised at the smallness
of the rooms I’m showing/
how a rumpled green bedspread
nearly fills one.
Then I’m drawn back to it,
sliding out and in
Armantrout says it again, even more emphatically, in “Autobiography: Urn Burial”:
When I recount my experiences,
whatever they may have been,
I’m aware of piping tunes
I’ve heard before.
Or jumbled snatches of familiar tunes.
The fancy cannot cheat
for very long, can it?
In the moment of experience
one may drown
while another looks on.
In Money Shot, Armantrout proves that she is nearest heir to Stevens, not only with respect to the way she thinks about her subject matter, but the way she can squeeze poetry from the elegant expression of her ideas. Her own sense of this affinity with Stevens is no better revealed than in the final poem, “Real Article”:
Everything I know
is something I’ve repeated.
Lazy horn solo
tries to wander off,
and we don’t notice.
Veterans Day flags
at their poles.
The day is warm.
Everything known is “repeated,” yet in different ways, as she demonstrates here. Instead of the “bubbling basoons” of Stevens’ “The Man On The Dump, we have a “lazy horn solo” that “tries to wander off,/but can’t” or if it does “we don’t notice.” Anomalies are invisible to a mind confined to the given paradigm, where nothing is “shed” (in Stevens’ words). Thus, the image of the Veterans Day flags that “lap idly/at their poles,” is itself a symbolic description of a tradition that, while idle, still invites the imagination. Finally, her explicit reference to the Stevens’ poem, “The day is warm/ ‘The.'” The quotation marks call attention to one of the most famous endings in modern poetry, Stevens double article: “The the.” With this ending, Armantrout leaves us with a great sense of unease, a feeling that our knowledge is merely functional for the moment in which it is used, that it portends no final relief from our travails.
[i] Stephen Burt, “Seeds of Doubt,” The New York Times, March 18, 2007 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/18/books/review/Burt2.t.html?_r=0
[ii] William Montgomery, “East Passing Thought,” Boston Review (November/December 2011). http://www.bostonreview.net/BR36.6/william_montgomery_rae_armantrout_money_shot.php
[iii] Daniel E. Pritchard cites an interview of Armantrout on PBS’s ArtsBeat: “Armantrout describes her most common poetic structure to host Jeffrey Brown: ‘Many of my poems — not all of them — but many of them are written in separate sections that are divided perhaps by numbers or perhaps by asterisks, and they are separate moments or separate thoughts that are juxtaposed, and I’m interested in the juxtapositions and the kind of friction that bringing in material from diverse situations or disparate realms can create.’” Daniel E. Pritchard, “The Lyric LangPo Alarm,” The Critical Flame (http://criticalflame.org/verse/0111_pritchard.htm)
[iv] Joseph Frank, The Idea of Spatial Form, Rutgers University Press 1991, p.15
[v] The connection between “fronds” and the word play in“spray” shows that the quantum leap connecting these ideas may be bridged not only by logic, but by other means that are not necessarily logical.
[vi] Armantrout’s choise of potassium (fertilizer) deliberately invokes its alternative use as an explosive and lends the double entendre to the word “explodes” in the third line.
[vii] Tracy Clark-Flory, “Explaining the “Money Shot,” Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/2012/02/21/explaining_the_money_shot/
[viii] Even applying the word “Tain.” to salacious ends is somewhat of a stretch, since the words “tane” and “tain” are not contractions, and as a single word ending in a period it doesn’t have meaning outside Urbandictionary.com . If Armantrout were to have meant something like “poontang” it would be nonsensical in the context.
Steven M. Critelli © 2013
Categories: Literary Criticism