Thursday, March 22, 2012

a review of Rae Armantrout’s ‘Custom’

a review of Rae Armantrout’s 'Custom' (above/ground press, 2012) by writer and dg associate Cassie Leigh:

Language is a tricky thing. It can be used to tell us with a point-blank simplicity how things really are, or it can be used to envelope the truth in irony and elegant words that force a deeper look into what is between the lines. Rae Armantrout, part of the first generation of Language poets on the West Coast and 2010 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, finds a way to give us both in her chapbook Custom.

At first read, Armantrout’s presentation is simple and graceful. The words fall into perfect place in the four poems (pulled from the scheduled 2013 release of a manuscript titled Just Saying), and we are lulled by the methodic and flowing nature of her poetic voice. There is something just below the surface, though, that begs for interpretation. Something past the beauty in her words calls out with a darker irony. I found myself reading and rereading these four poems, overwhelmed with what came out of each different examination.

Specifically, Armantrout’s title poem ‘Custom’ uses the everyday speech that she is best known for, but we are presented with a deeper question that is loosely hidden behind the simplicity. We are given an airport, a hotel, a plaid duvet and constant movement from terminal to terminal – and they are all regular, simple proclamations that sit on the surface of her words, in plain view. But with her last lines, Armantrout states that,

We are almost money. / We can wait at high speed.

The image of moving between terminals becomes the representation of people as nothing more than a transaction for big corporations, and any personality that could be represented from person to person fades away as quickly as the stripes of an old, plaid duvet.

The language of Rae Armantrout’s Custom remains vast and open. I find that there are so many layers to her writing that there will always be more that you can pull out from the grace of her words. From a simplicity to a complexity that begs for fight or flight, the journey that she takes you on in four short poems is overwhelming, subversive, and completely worth the trip.

Cassie Leigh has a mysteriously absent last name. She spends her days dealing with money, and her nights dealing with art. A current resident of St. Catharines, Cassie is co-editor of Irregular Artifact Press and has had work published in the anthologies 'looking for trees' and 'lapse'. Cassie has also won the Eleanor Abram Prize for fiction two years in a row - 2009 and 2010. In film, Cassie took part in the script creation of Apollo Boy, the recipient of the People's Choice award in the 2011 Brock University's Render This! film festival. Currently, Cassie has book reviews forthcoming from Broken Pencil and Bookshelf 2.0.

Wesleyan published Rae Armantrout’s most recent poetry collection, Money Shot, in January of 2011. Armantrout’s previous book, Versed (Wesleyan, 2009), received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was a finalist for the National Book Award. Next Life (Wesleyan, 2007), was chosen as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by The New York Times. Other recent books include Collected Prose (Singing Horse, 2007), Up to Speed (Wesleyan, 2004), The Pretext (Green Integer, 2001), and Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). Her poems have been included in anthologies such as American Hybrid (Norton, 2009), Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (1993), American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Language Meets the Lyric Tradition (Wesleyan, 2002), The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford, 2006) and The Best American Poetry of 1988, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2008. Armantrout received an award in poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2007 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. She is Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, San Diego. Writing in Poetry magazine, Ange Mlinko has said, “I would trade the bulk of contemporary anecdotal free verse for more incisive, chilling poetry like Armantrout’s. The poems gathered here [in Custom] are from a manuscript called Just Saying due out in 2013.

thanks so much to Cassie Leigh for this lovely review!
find out more about Custom from above/ground press here!

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