PRINT March 2007


Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout is a poet and professor of writing and literature at the University of California in San Diego, whose poems have recently appeared in The Nation and The Oxford Book of American Poetry. Her eighth book of poems, Next Life, was published by Wesleyan University Press in January 2007, and she is currently working on a new book titled Versed.

  1. RONSILLIMAN.BLOGSPOT.COM Silliman’s Blog receives about 1,300 hits per day—surprising for a site that deals mainly with contemporary poetry. Silliman’s daily entries are fiercely intelligent, fiercely opinionated, and dauntingly thorough. The site includes lively comments by readers who often disagree with the blogger’s views, and also pages for Silliman’s own poetry, including Tjanting, a dazzling long poem structured according to the Fibonacci number system.

  2. EMILY DICKINSON Her name is famous, but I wonder how many people really read the poems. They are uncanny. Dickinson questions God (in both senses of that phrase) and stares down death, yet, despite the seriousness of the subjects, she is never solemn. Lately I’ve been especially struck by her poem #1259 (in the Thomas H. Johnson edition) as a description of aesthetic experience, or art itself. This is the “wind” she invokes that

    with itself did cold engage
    . . .
    Like Separation’s Swell
    Restored in Arctic Confidence
    To the Invisible—

    Emily Dickinson, ca. 1886. Emily Dickinson, ca. 1886.
  3. LEE SMOLIN, THE TROUBLE WITH PHYSICS (HOUGHTON MIFFLIN, 2006) Smolin, who has previously written enthusiastically about string theory, in this latest book suggests that it may be something of a mathematical fad. My enthusiasm for Smolin’s writing has nothing to do with this thesis. I like it because of sentences like this: “Recall the wave/particle duality of quantum mechanics which asserts that there is a wave associated with every particle. The reverse is also true: There is a particle associated with every wave, including a particle associated with the sound wave traveling through metal. It is called a phonon.” These images boggle my mind, and that, as Frank O’Hara once said, “is when refreshment arrives.”

    Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).
  4. FRANCIS PONGE My favorite collection of the work of this French poet is Things, translated by Cid Corman (Grossman Publishers, Inc., 1971). It contains (mostly) prose poems with titles such as “The Piece of Meat, “The Oyster,” and “The Notebook of the Pine Woods.” Ponge is a sort of naturalist. His poems are scientifically precise and full of accurate observation, yet they are also fanciful, subtly metaphorical, and eccentric. There is no poet remotely like him.

  5. SANS SOLEIL (1982) This film by Chris Marker is like good poetry. The female narrator tells us what a man has written her about his travels in Japan and Africa. The images and the words, sometimes directly correlated, sometimes not, show that Marker is deeply in love with the strangeness of all human ceremonies and customs. We’re shown a Japanese ceremony for the souls of broken dolls, which are piled up and burned after the narrator speaks about “the poignancy of things.” A dignified couple say a prayer for the soul of their missing cat at a temple filled with kitschy ceramic cats. We’re also shown people gawking at the exotic treasures in “The Vatican Exhibition” at a Sogo department store in Tokyo. Despite the fact that the film deals with the distances between people, there is absolutely no irony. This is Lost in Translation without the comic flippancy.

    Chris Marker, Sans Soleil, 1982, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Chris Marker, Sans Soleil, 1982, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes.
  6. BOB PERELMAN, IFLIFE (ROOF BOOKS, 2006) Perelman’s brilliant new book begins with what may be the best poem to date opposing the invasion of Iraq. It’s called “Against Shock and Awe.” This prose poem is a funny, grim, scathing analysis of the justifications for the conduct of the war. Here are a few lines: “Deeper rationale: It’s an adult world. Shock and Awe is adult political theatre for a world audience. To reach an audience that big you have to project.”

  7. THE ROLLING STONES, “GIMME SHELTER” I’m still crazy about this 1969 song. I know I’m not alone here. It was featured in Martin Scorsese’s recent film The Departed. The Stones have taken considerable flak in the press recently, apparently for committing the sin of growing old in public. So I just want to say that the opening bars of this song, with an eerie falsetto floating over an ominous ratchet noise, still give me chills. They give me a sense of what the old philosophers meant by “the sublime.”

    Mick Jagger at the premiere of The Departed, New York, September 26, 2006. Photo: AP/Stephen Chernin. Mick Jagger at the premiere of The Departed, New York, September 26, 2006. Photo: AP/Stephen Chernin.
  8. LYDIA DAVIS In a wry yet friendly and practical voice, Davis’s stories tell us about the impossibility of being innocent. Her collection Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (McSweeney’s Books, 2001) is full of double takes, those she experiences and those she makes us experience. You know how if you stare at any one word too long it begins to look quite strange? Well, Davis puts language in general, relationships in particular, and life itself under that sort of scrutiny.

    Lydia Davis, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (McSweeney’s Books, 2001). Lydia Davis, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (McSweeney’s Books, 2001).
  9. CONJUNCTIONS Edited by Bradford Morrow, Conjunctions is a weighty journal with high production values. Almost every issue mixes “experimental” fiction with poetry of the same stripe. And the journal flourishes. Having just celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, Conjunctions shows that such editorial choices don’t have to spell disaster.

  10. FANNY HOWE, “O’CLOCK” This poem delights me every time I read it because of the visceral pleasure Howe takes in the natural world. Lines like the following are truly joyful:

    Hive-sized creams are on the chestnut tree
    alive for—and with—bees—boughs
    of copper beech give birds a ride

    I think Howe has just about the best ear of any poet writing. She is also philosophically and politically provocative.