Sunday, October 9, 2011

Armantrout's Money Shot

[Money Shot. Rae Armantrout. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2011.]

In the world of pornography, "money shot" refers to the crucial moment when a male actor ejaculates, either on or inside the partner, usually at the conclusion of a session of oral copulation. The origin of the term appears to have come from film-making, either in reference to the expense of setting up, or the anticipated value ($$$) of, a specific scene, or even the premium pay due the male actors who do it.

Variance among "hard"- and "soft"-core kinds of representation may denote degrees of verisimilitude or taste. In any case, the term (or phrase) has entered the language, and is now routinely heard in other contexts in which any important event or situation may be defined through its emphatic use.

From a critical point of view, the act (and the term) may be said to express a misogynistic attitude towards women, for whom the submission to degradation and/or belittlement constitutes a depersonalization, a submission to male power, or eroticized male hatred. The flip-side of that take is that the oral-genital sublimation may symbolize the passive submission of the male, or that the fetishization of semen as the pay-off of the sexual bargain signifies the growing irrelevance of men in reproductive contract.

In Armantrout's poems, the term appears to have been conceived as a metaphorical handle to define the contemporary climate of exploitation and greed which have characterized our attitudes about the purpose and function of work, material acquisition, and social status. It may have powerful negative connotations, but in a broader sense, it serves a poetic function as a generative inspiration for the elaboration of themes of suspicion, irony, indignation, revelation and grace--all the range of feelings one might have about the infection and proliferation of betrayal, menace and manipulation as experienced in the arena of public media and intercourse (or language). In other words, language is both the measure and the playground of this discourse.

The poems in Armantrout's new book aren't about pornography in the literal sense. But they work off of the sleazy undercurrent of contempt and lazy petulance which one sees, or reads and hears expressed everywhere these days. The underlying quest of Armantrout's critique of our language is to identify and tag those elements which threaten to compromise our potential for goodness, or fulfillment, or ease. Her poems are criticisms of life, but they address or confront her demons by worrying the coinages and currencies of familiar speech, turning them over and over, playing them off against each other, and wringing them out for their dry turns, the partial, provisional verdicts she offers. Alertness is required.

Money Talks


Money is talking
to itself again

in this season's
and safari look,

its closeout camouflage.

Hit the refresh button
and this is what you get,

money pretending
that its hands are tied.


On a billboard by the 880,

money admonishes,
"shut up and play."

Armantrout's sentiments usually fall either towards mild, guarded curiosity, or sardonic disgust. In the grand complexity of capital exchange systems, money itself may be a mystic, malevolent spirit which passes through situations and people autonomously. Money wants what people want it to be, to flow and surge and accelerate through the organs and pathways laid for it, in a pressured anxiety of increase. "Don't think about it too long," the salesman argues, "or the opportunity will get away from you." Seize the moment, enter the flow, shut up and play. The bet, the bargain, the risk. All about us lie futility and the temptation to indulge. If the marketplace is a metaphorical jungle, safari fashion may be the ultimate camouflage. The mind's refresh button effaces the expedient cost of doing business, which turns people into ciphers--consumers of their own greed. Money talks. It talks to us. It talks to itself. In the era of hysterical commoditization, mouth feel commands shelf space.

Armantrout's poems function off of flippant juxtapositions which treat the hip phraseology of slick tech speech and crass slang as exhibits in the case against implication--literally turning the language against itself in a mock pitched war-game of competing clichés, official-babble, and straying presumptions. "Gotcha!" her poems often seem in effect to be exclaiming. "Thought you could hide behind that mild little politically correct phrase? Guess again." In the world of Armantrout's poems, what we want is a fidelity which passeth understanding, seeing clearly and without unconscious bias what's happening right in front of us; scrubbing sentiment of its clinging detritus of the fake, the phony, the naive. It takes a limber sensibility.

The Given

Given potassium enough
and time,

the bougainvillea explodes

into pink
papier-mache boxes.


Availability bias.


"The risk
of a bubble bursting

should be reflected
in the price . . . "

The bubble in question seems to be the financial bubbles we've all experienced at ground zero. Stock jockeys and policy wonks prognosticate over cocktails at The Four Seasons. Oscar Peterson and Vivaldi float in on digital wings. We're just getting started.

I read once that the best way to deal with excess radioactive waste was simply to disperse it in the most efficient manner--so that it would become the baseline "environmental" median everywhere. After all, we're constantly being bombarded with radiation from "outer space"--and mutations can occur as easily this way as they can from the man-made stuff. Is it possible to become too blasé about the end of days? Bottom line: Your 401k, your household equity, your tax burden, your health insurance premium, are all teetering in the balance.

Ad writers and product researchers study the language to measure "spin" and "shading" in public speech. You can read a culture through its hot button words and phrases. It hardly matters where such words originate, or who came up with them. They're symptomatic avatars, created to fill a need. Words thus entering the language may be appropriated by arrogant forces and enemy factions to manipulate, defend, attack, implicate, etc. Meanings attaching to such words or phrases have great power and suggestiveness, but they can be dangerous to use out of context, since they have connotations and auras which make them too "hot" to handle. One of the methodologies of Armantrout's work is employing such language, as specimens of how we tend to think (or think about something). The "voices" speaking such language are otherwise anonymous--the dialectic between the "blind" quotation, and Armantrout's own authorial voice is usually clear, though she frequently implicates herself--and us--in the process.

Structurally, the poems usually are set in three or four sections, set off by numbers or asterisks. A preliminary statement is offered, which is then augmented or contracted or contradicted in the next section, and finally there is a twisting irony or deflation which summarizes or unsettles the assumptions or motivations behind the earlier parts. The poems are narrow, allowing the dramatic unfolding of separate words and phrases, and withholding the tendency towards a musical rhythm; most of the music comes from the sing-song-y quality of the spinning chime of the cliché, the language she wants us to consider. Like Oppen--clearly one of her masters--she usually "comments" through imagery or indirection. She's more interested in how an underlying sentiment contained in the public language involves both you (the reader) and her, than in any gains she might make in taking a partisan shot. The argument in any poem traditionally involves an intention or an ulterior motive; but in Armantrout's poems, the point seems to be to undercut motives, rendering them moot. The objectification of language used as an aesthetic tool, forces some of her poems into little ouroboroses, turning inward upon themselves in a self-consuming agon. This kind of relativity of point of view makes many of her poems feel untethered, as if floating on a sea of wry elaboration.

"There are so many voices in the air. Sometimes they become the voices in my head—voices from the media, or a tone of voice from my mother. All of those voices go into who we are, and are distinguishable from us too. My beginning point is to separate myself from them, or throw them off by putting brackets around them."


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!"

Peggy Noonan, a Conservative Republican speechwriter for George A.W. Bush, had proposed the "thousand points of light . . . spread like stars throughout the nation." Noonan had apparently found this reference in a book of juvenile Fantasy, The Magician's Nephew, the sixth book published in C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia series. Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931 and became a devout Anglican for the rest of his life, and died of renal failure on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, 22 November, 1963. Lewis was a popular apologist for Christian dogma throughout his life, though his perspective was as a skeptic, with an intellectual bent. His peculiar combination of imaginative fantasy and pragmatic "universal morality" is a source of much of the arch-conservative agenda we've heard and seen played out in the last 40 years in American politics and our foreign policy adventures. Noonan, who now works as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, is an odd hybrid, a sort of combination of Doctor Laura, Donna Reed and Margaret Thatcher, dispensing practical advice about how to cook liberals over the witches' flame, and concocting media-image enhancement for corporate think tanks.

But there is no comfort in thinking that Armantrout's poems are about winners and losers. Nothing seems easy in Armantrout's world. Nothing can be trusted. Nothing is quite what it seems. Consciousness may play tricks. It's elusive, coy. There's a secret you're trying not to hide. The universe cannot be known except in glimpses. The big picture has too many sides. Closure as a poetic strategy exerts a powerful influence on people: But Armantrout's poems rarely cash themselves in for an easy win. She's interested in edges, where the friction of one surface interacts (contacts) with another, upping the ante of jeopardy for the self, and pulling the reader's security out from underneath him like a rug. Selfhood is a quality of coherence we associate with familiarity, the sound of one's voice, an habitual way of addressing the given. The words (the language) we use are assumed from the common pool of the race, but they (the words) become us, and we become it (the language). We are most aware of this separate self-hood (our specific nature, our individuality) when we're at or near crisis. Armantrout's recent bout with a dangerous form of cancer clearly brought a new intensity and gravity to her poems.


Custom content feed.

Let me tell you something personal.
As a child, I worried about quicksand.
I don't know why I mention this.
I feel no connection
to the child who had that fear,
instilled, as it was,
by '50s films about explorers,
and tainted now.

I hold out my hand.


Brownian motion;
primal shudder.

The way it's hotter

to go to bed with someone
while imagining

to be another person.

The poem functions not as an autobiographical report designed to elicit a moral or experiential point. It's not advice, not a phenomenal experiment, not a dialogue between youth and age or self and soul. Expanding outward from the exampled terror of her own childhood, she reverses the expectation by proposing the vicarious sexual role of the imagined stranger--the very quality of doomed surrogate--of autonomy versus volition (will)--which characterizes her quest for meaning.

Autobiography: Urn Burial


I could say

will have been about trying
to overtake the past,

inhabit it
long enough to look around,

say "Oh,"

but the past is tricky,

holds off.

So are we really moving?

Or is this something
like the way

form appears
to chase function?


I might hazard that my life's course
has been somewhat unusual.
When I say that, I hear both
an eager claim
and a sentence that attempts to distance itself
by adopting the style
of a 19th-century English gentleman.
The failed authority
of such sentences is soothing,
like watching Masterpiece Theatre.

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.


Hypocrite lecteur.

I've been reading Armantrout's work for a long time, going all the way back to her first appearance in Clayton Eshleman's Caterpillar Magazine in the early 1970's. Her work has remained amazingly consistent--she's apparently never been influenced to speak or write in a voice other than the one she began with (i.e., her "own"). This in itself is phenomenal. Perhaps this is because she imagined her literary persona as being outside the body of the language which she employed. This kind of alienation poetics is what connects her, in my mind, with any of the other so-called Language Poets, who have consistently claimed her as one of their number. Aside from her social connections, she shares little else with them, in my view, and deserves to have her work considered outside the context of any group or movement. Her work seems now to have entered a reflective phase, one in which the time remaining can be devoted to the incremental, piecemeal consolidations of precise, provisional, measures. Though the world may seem to be on a kind of collision course with disaster, our greatest insight may be the cool objectivity with which we can calibrate that process. Extinction (our armageddon) was always there, in the cards, the deck stacked, the outcome certain. Sex and death--the great currencies of art.


1000 Names of Vishnu said...

clever or "intriguing" as they say, but essentially another UC apparatchik getting her narcissism on--like Sir Fagville.

The real question (however ....Mericun it might sound) is...should CA taxpayers be required to fund "creative writing" such as this?? We say ..nyet. . Of course people can and will write whatever they want to...but the state should not be expected to foot the bill for programs and "teachers" (and that holds for most...Ahhts funding--though IMHO there's quite a difference between say ..the expert musician who plays...chopin and scriabin perfectly, and poets--fund the chopinista...the poetaster--no, unless perhaps a Pound-like genius--)

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Vishnu:

Gee, thanks, Vish--"Sir Fagville." How did I acquire this trite moniker?

I'm inclined to agree with the bit about taxpayer-underwritten art. As you would know, if you'd read my piece about it here--

--not because government doesn't occasionally get it right, but because in aesthetics there can't be any "democratic" welfare. Who's to decide on the value of anyone's art?

1000 Names of Vishnu said...

That's another amusing (or sickening) aspect of anti-statist rants of conservative "writers" such as Kirby Olson and his cronies (Olson a college teacher of some type)--when engaging in the teabagger rant--"end-handouts for teachers/professors", etc--aren't they in effect saying..."We should be fired, since we are part of the corrupt State"? Like Robespierre, or..dyslexic Robespierre at least--who legend holds, pulled the robe on his own guillotine-ing

That said, I have reconsidered---IM not opposed to funding Mss Armantrouts, really. I'm opposed to one solitary genius (or putative genius) getting the sinecure, and hundreds, or thousands of others who are starving poets/artists for years (or life). So, stipends for all! (at least somewhat legitimate ahhtistes, degrees,so forth). Tax the Kochs and google execs ,etc to pay for it..

1000 Names of Vishnupo said...

that is..."and hundreds, or thousands of others who are starving poets/artists for years (or life) do without."