The only time I met the poet Rae Armantrout, a few years ago, I escorted her from her hotel to the lecture hall at the University of Chicago where she was to read. We chatted, and she mentioned that she had a new book coming out. I asked her what it was called. “‘Money Shot,'” said this smallish, birdlike woman in her early 60s. The incongruity of hearing such a phrase issue from such a mouth (Google it if you don't know what it means; this is a family paper) strikes me now as an apt metaphor for Armantrout's career and work.
Long associated with perennial band-of-outsiders the Language poets, Armantrout has in recent years got her star on. Poems in The New Yorker and Poetry; the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award (for 2009's "Versed"): The gatekeepers of what Charles Bernstein derides as "official verse culture" have crowned Armantrout No. 1 with a bullet. She's about as avant-garde as the Grammys.
And good for her. Armantrout's gnomic lyrics are temperamentally at odds with the pseudo-populist porridge of Billy Collins and Mary Oliver, the treacly earnestness of Franz Wright and Rita Dove. "Versed" was written in the wake of a personal crisis, "Money Shot" (2011) in the wake of the financial meltdown (the title is, of course, a double or triple entendre).
But whatever her themes, Armantrout is on the lookout for the live-wire of the moment, the chatter of the now. She overhears, she jots, she scans.
"Language exists / to pull things / close," she notes, but it also estranges — "pull things close" is an idiom worth parsing. Clear Channel and campfire stars, joysticks and hibiscus, "interglacial / moraines" and "zero wiggle room," Russian icons and X-Men: "Just Saying," her latest book, is a dialectical flea dip.
Like Helen Levitt and William Carlos Williams, Armantrout isolates everyday particulars and steps back, withdrawing the struts of symbolism and commentary:
Next to the thoroughfare,
between the shopping plaza
and the medical complex,
a man in a straw hat
on a pink
woman's shoe on it