Brenda HillmanCrossing The Garden: Rae Armantrout's Metaphysics

by Brenda Hillman



In Kafka’s interpretation of a classic moment, the Sirens try to seduce Ulysses with their pretense of song, with their silences, rather than with any real singing. He had heard that they would sing; he thinks they are singing when they aren’t, and fills his ears with wax.1 

            The first poem in Rae Armantrout’s Necromance has the image of a poppy under a tree singing like a Siren with the “morbid/glamor of the singular.” Her Siren artist relies on silence and carefulness for song, “emphasizing correct names/ as if making amends.”

            Though it is the other dominant western symbol system she uses mostly to push against.

            When God sends them out of the garden, the garden bristles. In this opposite of breathing, Armantrout uses a sort of inverse diaspora to convey what happens to energy in gardens. Engaged in creating a trellis for the silence of god to climb on, she breathes back against the silence of god and against traditional kinds of ontogenic mythmaking.

            Upset with creation, she posits metaphysical propositions and then takes them back.

            This project of challenging god seems to intensify from book to book.

            Her garden says no.  In Necromance, perhaps the most Edenish of her books, some oleander is associated with coral pink lipstick from the fifties, which is associated (through the word “smack”) with a threat.

            In the beginning of this book, images of flame and flowers abound. Eden has disappointed itself and fallen.

             The sirens also thought something was singing. For Armantrout, this is like Southern California whose garden says no.

            The elegant fall from grace would not be possible without the spareness of the lines, which allow so much room for God’s silent breathing to push back. This is some of what gives her her power, the power of the silent space in the right margin, pushing back against her.

            She works nevertheless very often within judeo-christian mythology rather strictly. She is as she writes recently “falling for biblical resonance.”2


            Her chief concern is with the manipulation of perception by culture. The biblical truth is a form of manipulation both in and out of itself. Each of her books has references to the home garden as the original garden, to the afterlife, and makes reference to the Christian meta-story but she needs to change it, to tease it, to expand it by starving it into strong wirey intelligence.

            Her writer, seeing God’s impotence, must take charge of the visible.

             This happens so often that in Precedence, she implores the reader to “think in order/to recall/what the striking thing//resembles.” This is simply that God “so impotently/loved the world.”

            Since a line is a measure of withheld energy, she often writes in the shortest possible lines, as if to use God’s impotence against him.

            Her lines instruct the reading to help give more power, more choice, in the free-will/ fate debate she inherits. Punning and syntactical shifts create a maze in the garden.

             Early in her poetic career, in Extremities, she is concerned with how to read God lightly: “Paradise/ is golden.// Sun / on wicker chair.// It is as one knew! // The joyful song/ascends.” She yanks Paradise out of itself by italicizing the tiny substanceless word “is.” Not only is the word “golden” inevitably ironic, the whole wispy utterance floats in its loneliness like a seed.

            With Dickinsonian suspicion of the very fact of Paradise with a P, she writes in “Travels”: “‘All the way.’ What could it mean?”

            That is why in her garden of paradise, her flowers crave silence exactly in the form of the word “silence.” “Among the zinnias, I once thought/ I had recovered silence.”

            Like all good postmodernists, her subject is the matter of her art, and it is a self-reflexive matter. When she uses the iconography of the bible she re-fashions, remakes paradise, remakes gardens, remakes snakes into ouroboroses: her snake is his own fall, he is “damned/because he filled//his own wake/everywhere.../To swallow your own tail—/

or tale--/is no longer// an approved form of transportation.”

            Making a swift trip from Genesis to Gnosis without loss of entropy, the reinterpreted snake instead of having his head up his ass has his ass in his mouth. Becoming one of both. A divine joke. “Go ahead,/” she tells him, “say anything.”

            Her snake, like her sirens, has feasted on silence by stuffing itself on received language. 3

            Elsewhere, Armantrout remakes Jesus getting crossed. Even getting the being saved done efficiently, in “Saved”: “That job. The tabular/empty figures/you enjoyed the rhythm of.// In heaven already?”

            Armantrout’s basic strategy : compression, using the enigmatic, carved line against itself.

            In a poem-long pun, “Crossing,” she plays on the idea of cultural sacrifice. How strange and strong and spare the business of sacrifice is made to seem. “This is where/our history begins./Well, perhaps not/history, but we do/feel ourselves preceded.” The crossing is the transfer of significance from a repression by the father to protection by the mother without there being any particular benefit to the son. Adages sometimes are passed along, as warnings.

            In the poem a desert is crossed, like the Sinai.

            The son is almost sacrificed in a witty noonish-on-Good-Friday landscape which includes the striking image “The sky darkened/then. It seemed/like the wrong end/of a weak simile.” In this manner, in the manner of southern California sunning and deathy irony, she continues her cultural commentary within a metaphysical tradition.

            Elsewhere, more Christ and Wordsworth.

            But the references are often muted. In the title poem of Precedence, a dead boy found “‘wrapped around’ [what is she quoting?] a a roiling wilderness.”

            An oddly distilled cleverness—like aromatherapy—when Armantrout uses God’s name against him.

            “‘All the way.’ What did it mean?

              To enter Paradise with him?” (Travels)

            But which biblical phrases does she choose to re-vamp? These stanzas aren’t rooms, they’re more like rental storage spaces. “A trademark-like/stuttering.” (That’s a stanza.) They’re the compressed saved part. How deftly she writes, seemingly about her own process, that a phrase is so short it’s “like the hidden name of God.” For one so renegade, it is amusing that she dutifully capitalizes.

            It’s not “clear” what place God has in her perceptual order. What is clear is that she needs to use the tools of the Godstuff to breathe against, in these muscular and precise poems.

            Reshuffling the cards—God, garden, Jesus, afterlife, Sunday, saved,—is a way of making the little breeze come about.

            “‘Ha, ha, you missed me,’

            a dead person says.”

            In this manner she balances her moral doubt.

            Her garden gives way to salad in a diner: “What the cool tomato cubes forming a rosette around this central olive have to do with love and happiness.” (Necromance)

            The writer, seeing God’s impotence and having pity, takes charge of the visible, which means she has choices. 




1 Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes, New York: Schocken, 1961 (back to text)

2 Fence, Spring 98 (back to text)

3 ibid. p56 (back to text)

BIO: Brenda Hillman has published two chapbooks, the most recent of which is Autumn Sojourn (Em Press, 1995) and five books (all from Wesleyan University Press), most recently Loose Sugar (1997). She teaches at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, California.

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