Next Life

snow ripples 2

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
into watching

(“Remote”), sentences about sentences:

A man and a woman
finish sentences
and laugh.

Each sentence is both
an acquiescence
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.

10 Replies to “Next Life”

  1. I read this twice. You’re spot on in that last paragraph. It’s too easy to forget that especially when we get trapped by our own cleverness as it seems Armantrout has, though all I know of this poet is what you’ve written here.

    I can’t wait to read the sea urchin poem when it’s ready.

    1. James, you can find links to some of Armantrout’s poems on her website and on her page at I almost always avoid saying negative things about poets and poetry here, because I want to make people like poetry, not give them more reasons to dislike it — or worse, irritate a regular reader by slighting a favorite poet. But something about the combination of arid drawing-room ambience and in-group humor about writing kind of got under my skin.

  2. The poetry you quote sounds like the equivalent of minimalism in visual art, and both seem like the logical conclusion of attempting to separate the mind from the body.

    I remember many years ago reading a science fiction story where people got some sort of ailment that caused them to adopt a characteristic of – I think – sea urchins, they spit their stomachs out when frightened.

    1. the logical conclusion of attempting to separate the mind from the body

      That’s sea cucmbers — also echidnoderms. The cool thing is we’re much more closely related to these guys than we are to many things with clearly analogous body parts such as insects. Our two phylums, Chordata and Echidnodermata, are grouped together as Deuterostomes. The entire genome of the purple sea urchin has been sequenced, and there’s 70 percent overlap with the human genome.

  3. Ai. Yes, I do get the feeling that somebody smart and talented has been told authoritatively that she should write about writing about writing, and that there’s a good poet under there somewhere, suffocating under a blanket of self-referentiality. But who knows? Maybe it really is what she wants to write about.

    1. No argument about the talent. There are a lot of almost-great poems in the collection that are only spoiled by a few lines. But I think that authoritative voice is her own: she is a Professor of Poetry and Poetics, and it shows.

  4. Where did you get the specifics about their vision and the spines being used to “squint”? I’d only heard recently that they have full-body vision.

      1. Thanks! I just read the article, and I liked this crack from Johnsen: “It’s hard to examine their nervous systems, since their nerves are very, very small and the animals are more or less made of rock.”

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