Every day it softens and settles; every night it sets. At a certain point in late morning, it no longer holds you up. In one week since this photo was taken, we have gone from late winter to early spring. Yesterday a bluebird began singing, and this morning at dawn the call of the Cooper’s hawk was echoing off the snowpack — as if such a skilled ventriloquist needs one more way to throw his voice.
I was out early enough to hear him only because a sea urchin woke me, spines poking my flesh as I wandered through a dream forest of kelp. For the past week I have been dithering over a poem about sea urchins, trying to capture that extreme otherness in words, and now this visit. I leaf through Rae Armantrout’s Next Life, which I am trying hard to like, and happen on a poem about those who believe they have been abducted by tentacled aliens, which she compares to Doubting Thomas and his probing of the wounds in the risen Christ. “It is from this wound/ that humans first emerged,” she says — the only lines in the poem that speak to me.
The blurb on the back from Publisher’s Weekly says, “this could be the year when more readers discover Armantrout.” Hmm. Well, readers who happen to be steeped in the self-reflexive thinking of American graduate-school programs in English, perhaps. For who else would relish poems about metaphor:
shifts a small weight
there and back.
My self-relection shames God
(“Remote”), sentences about sentences:
A man and a woman
Each sentence is both
and a dismissal.
(“The Ether”), the use of quotation marks to signal irony:
It’s after us
and before us—always
trying to get “in.”
(“Continuity”) or a discourse on irony itself (“Empty”)? The book description informs us that “these poems push against the limit of knowledge, that event-horizon, and into the echoes and phantasms beyond, calling us to look toward the ‘next life’ and find it where we can.” No, they don’t. They merely bore me. The radical questioning of meaning is hardly new, and Armantrout’s poems show little evidence of familiarity with the significant philosophical works of the last hundred years.
I mean, there’s literally a poem here about — no, make that “about” — trying to write a poem, “Make It New.” Infinite recursion does not equal apophatic insight. “You’re left out,” concludes a poem called “Framing.” That’s fair to say.
I walk up into the woods to see if I can spot the Cooper’s hawk, but my eyes are drawn, as usual, to the ground. It’s still below freezing, and my boots barely crunch into the surface, but I stop to admire spiny oak leaves that have melted their way down into shallow graves. Again I think of sea urchins, painstakingly excavating nests in the seafloor’s solid rock: eyes in search of sockets. And that’s not just a metaphor. It turns out that the appendages between their spines are covered with light-sensitive molecules, and the spines help them focus on the same principle as squinting eyelids. They have no brains because they are all brain. They have no eyes because the entire surface of their body is wired for vision.
Listen, you can look forward to the next life if you want, or try to throw your voice beyond the event horizon of a black hole, but I’m telling you: there’s no way another life can be more marvellous than this one.