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Money Shot (Wesleyan Poetry Series) Paperback – July 16, 2012
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In her follow-up to the Pulitzer- and National Book Critics Circle Award–winning Versed, Armantrout—who has always built her wily, jumpy, intricately witty and wise poems from scraps of popular and high culture, overheard speech, and found text, as well as her own quirky observations—tackles, in her oblique and inimitable way, what is perhaps the signature issue of the new millennium: money, or, more generally, how everything human has a price. "Hit the refresh button/ and this is what you get," writes Armantrout in "Money Talks": "money pretending/ that its hands are tied." These poems observe a world in which we assign blame to money—or "Mother," "Great angels" and "the objects/ I have caused// to represent me/ in my absence"—rather than take responsibility ourselves. We also mistake superstitious obsession for hard work, believing, for example, "The idea that,/ if I say it well enough,/ fear/ will be gone." And it's a world where degradation is sexy ("They're beneath you/ and it's hot") and "Security cameras/ record each moment, but/ nobody can bear to watch." Armantrout is only getting better: these new poems are among her best, and among the most relevant poems now being written. (Feb.)
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But first I want to address the previous reviewer's comments regarding the lack of "connecting argument" between the sections in an Armantrout poem: yes, true, and one reason RA's poems are so worthy of the attention paid to them these days. The sections in her poems act analogically. They make my brain buzz with overlapping negative space that, if I sit and wait and pay attention, fills slowly with new thoughts.
In "Ground," for instance:
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,
hokey and tainted now.
I hold out my hand.
The way it's hotter
to go to bed with someone
to be another person.
In the first section, a "custom content feed" of cheesy movies sparked fear in the kid Armantrout used to be, the child to whom she now "feels no connection." Telling us an anecdote that might at first appear to be a way to let us get to know her, Armantrout now "holds out her hand" both to the inaccessible child that inhabits her memories and to the reader, who is also in some ways inaccessible, beyond a boundary, subject (as every reader is) to a different "custom content feed" that relates only analogously to Armantrout's.
But how's this question of inaccessibility relate to the second section? The second section turns in an apparently unrelated direction, describing a distancing technique that improves sex: if you pretend you're someone else while having sex, you'll get more turned on. The connection between the two sections (as I take it) is boundary -- between people and their diverse experiences, between present and past, between our fantasies of ourselves. The poem's analogical strategy leads me to consider how the versions of boundary overlap. It might feel sad or fake or distancing to enact these boundaries (which we can't help enacting because of time and embodiment and self-consciousness). But Armantrout does not lament these apparent impediments, exactly: she connects them with natural phenomena, the random Brownian-type motion or "primal shudder" that distributes and dissociates us among the things of the world so that we and things are labeled and labile and excitingly, failedly interactive. Armantrout's analogical method presents us with two instances that model ways of thinking and puts those ways of thinking in question by setting them next to one another.
As for the connection the book makes between the financial crisis, sex, and languaged representation: try "Soft Money": "They" (unnamed) are "sexy/because they're needy, which degrades them...They're beneath you/and it's hot./...They're content to be/(not _mean_),/which degrades them/and is sweet./They want to be the thing-in-itself//_and_ the thing-for-you--//Miss Thing--/but can't..." Here's the commodity fetish, shown to be as needy of us as we are of it. Its helpless participation in commodity culture is cast as sexual, "which is so hot." A disturbing and sad and very funny poem.
Or try the connections made in "Eyes" between 9/11 and the thinking that we do that has made our world what it is (the poem is a take on Milton's "When I Consider How My Light Is Spent," and in the context of Money Shot, "spent" is a pun on the US/world financial situation):
fly at our behest
along axons and dendrites,
so that things stand
as they stand
in the recruited present.
How did we get here? We did it to ourselves, with our brains. A sense of the responsibility each of us have for "recruiting" our current economic and cultural situation blazes fiercely in this book. This book is very much worth reading now.
First, let's get the bad things out of the way. The title! Totally irrelevant. This is what the front jacket flap says: "The poems in Money Shot are forensic. Just as the money shot in porn is proof of the male orgasm, these poems explore questions of revelation and concealment." It goes on for quite a bit in the same vein. Huh?! And one of the blurbs actually says, "In a world of real justice, all speech would be sifted in Rae Armantrout's gold pan..." - which is a little bombastic, to say the least! Let's just say that, as social commentary, the poetry would not succeed, imho. The poet has an eye on pornography and money, it's true, but it's words, specifically as they are emptied of meaning by overuse and misuse, that are the focus here, it seems to me.
The poem "Autobiography: Urn Burial" (that's Keats' urn, naturally) partly explains what we're dealing with.
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.
Words are but echoes. But I would note the way that that predicament slides into the socio-ethical. This kind of sliding discourse is typical of Armantrout, and is a source of both pleasure and disbelief. We could paraphrase it like this: because words are only echoes to us (we cannot feel their truth as a part and extension of our being), we are unable to make sense of our experience, and so to act in the world. That's true in some sensee, I suppose, but as a personal experience, it's unsettling. To take the ethical hatchet to it, might one not say that the poet feels that way because as a professional poet (i.e. professor of poetry-writing) it is her privilege to experience words mostly removed from events and actions? However, I won't deny that "to have this vantage / from the cliff's edge, // to get drunk on indifference" speaks to the condition of a certain class of people...
I have found the poetry rewarding because of its surprise, frequent strangeness, and lyricism, however darkened by clouds overhead. It's also refreshing, after the experience of Heaney and Walcott and a host of other bucolic poets, to encounter the world as we know it. There's both surprise and pleasure in something like:
A man shoves books into mailers
each morning, in a happy rush,
imagining the pleasure
of his customers,
they may post
in the remaining oil
in an otherwise empty
have an air
In their own small way, more as diaristic jottings than as politico-philosophical statements, these poems are equal to the time. At least as good as alternative rock lyrics, for example.