I Am Writing This Always

Review of Rae Armantrout’s Versed

by Jason Lester



Rae Armantrout is a master of the minimalist lyric, and Versed, her twelfth book of poetry, is perhaps her magnum opus. Certainly the Pulitzer Prize Board thought so when they awarded the book the Pulitzer for poetry – which, coupled with Keith Waldrop’s National Book Award for Transcendental Studies, marks a giant and sudden, if not entirely surprising, rise in the mainstream legitimacy and acceptance of avant-garde poetry’s. In Versed, Armantrout employs her trademark style – sparse, haiku-like musings and aphorisms – asking pointed questions of the ability of humanity to meaningfully connect in a postmodern world of inauthentic detritus and scientific – not religious – revelation. At the same time, this book brings with it a newly discovered exigency and emotional center, grounded in Armantrout’s own battle with adrenal cortex cancer.


Armantrout’s language is a constant balancing act between wry amusement, outright mocking, and naïve wonderment. Like one of the classic definitions of haiku, Armantrout adopts the stance of the innocent child, pointing and proclaiming, “this is what the world is.” It is perhaps due to this precarious stance that lets her get away with – not murder, but certainly bad taste, as when she cut-and-pastes some news copy into “Operations”:


This child fights cancer

with the help

of her celebrity fan club,



“Now I know how hard it is

to be a movie star.”


Later, she ends the poem in a denial of the ability of modern poetry to attain a religious transcendence in the wake of the explications of quantum mechanics and string theory:


Speech, too, was thought

to be inhabited

by a god.


Then hunger

invented light.


This is not to say that Armantrout doesn’t recognize her own fallibility, her mere humanity. In “Wannabe,” she describes herself “impossibly teetering” between the polarities of cynicism and earnestness, “half contemptuous” of sentimentality’s easy answers, “half / ravished” by its allure. Like John Ashberry and Michael Palmer, she allows her own earnestness to enter the text, only to swerve away from it disjunctively, or to undercut its underlying assumptions. In “Help,” she complains:


A space



can’t bear

to be un-



I mark it:


“I” “I” “I”


In “New,” she adopts the language of fashion to make a particularly undercutting parallelism: “If yellow / is the new black, // the new you / is a cartoon.” She warns us that “The feeling of emptiness / is a pre-existing condition” of human existence in “Take-Out” before serving up the marketing slogan of an organic fast-food chain : “Burger Lounge: / ‘What it means / to be grass-fed.’” In this way, there lies an unacknowledged, always permeating tension and irony – with one hand, she reveals the ulterior motives of the rhetoric and rubbish that permeates our lives, and with the other she acknowledges how it is only through this ephemera that we can reach a semblance of honest emotion. This is evident in a senryu-like moment tucked inside of “Presto”:


Skeleton suits

and Superman outfits –


inappropriate touching

on drugstore racks.


Likewise, in “Equals,” she employs her ironic wit towards a distinctly Japanese syllogism:




As if, after all,


the thing that comes to mind


times inertia


equaled the “real.”




One lizard

jammed headfirst


down the throat

of a second


Particularly interesting is Armantrout’s stylistic technique employed in “Either Side,” breaking the language into two discrete sentences pivoting on the word sleep – “you exhale / as you drift toward sleep,” and “sleep / is an island / I can’t visit” – a stylistic technique pinched from the compressed language of Japanese haiku and tanka:


you exhale

as you drift toward sleep

is an island

I can’t visit


Despite these skepticisms and moments of quiet desperation, Armantrout finds a radiant catharsis and escape from her impending mortality towards the end of Versed in “Anchor,” a heartbreaking meditation on both our momentary existence and potential immortality at the site of science, if not god or posterity. She imagines the light saturated with her quotidian moment stretching across the universe forever, capable of being revived by anyone interested in taking a peak with their telescope:


If you watch me

from increasing distance,


I am writing this



The name of Versed pivots on a verbal ambiguity – it expresses how Armantrout is now “well-versed” in life, and how she has “versed” the contradictory moments of the everyday into her poetry; it is also a brand-name of a drug that induces temporary amnesia before the patient undergoes surgery. Armantrout’s poetic is well-suited for our peculiar moment in history, saturated as it is with information, irony, distrust - and also our aching desire, despite it all, to find out our own place among the stars.