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by Rae Armantrout

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (2010)
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award (2009)

Rae Armantrout has always organized her collections of poetry as though they were works in themselves. Versed brings two of these sequences together, offering readers an expanded view of the arc of her writing. The poems in the first section,


Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (2010)
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award (2009)

Rae Armantrout has always organized her collections of poetry as though they were works in themselves. Versed brings two of these sequences together, offering readers an expanded view of the arc of her writing. The poems in the first section, Versed, play with vice and versa, the perversity of human consciousness. They flirt with error and delusion, skating on a thin ice that inevitably cracks: “Metaphor forms / a crust / beneath which / the crevasse of each experience.” Dark Matter, the second section, alludes to more than the unseen substance thought to make up the majority of mass in the universe. The invisible and unknowable are confronted directly as Armantrout's experience with cancer marks these poems with a new austerity, shot through with her signature wit and stark unsentimental thinking. Together, the poems of Versed part us from our assumptions about reality, revealing the gaps and fissures in our emotional and linguistic constructs, showing us ourselves where we are most exposed. A reader’s companion is available at http://versedreader.site.wesleyan.edu/

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Trying to read a book by Rae Armantrout in a single sitting is like trying to drink a bowl of diamonds. What’s inside is all so shiny & clear & even tiny that it appears perfectly do-able. But the stones are so hard & their edges so chiseled that the instant you begin they’ll start to rip your insides apart.”—Ron Silliman, blog

“Rae Armantrout is the most philosophical sort of poet, continually seeking in her collections to summon and surmise the contemporary character of subjective experience and, further, to test the limits of knowledge. … Armantrout’s writing in her latest volume, Versed, will thus be familiar to her longtime readers for its way of holding meaning (and identification) in uneasy suspension. Short lines in brief poems are polyvalent in both voicing and implication, inviting multiple readings. …yet pleasure arises in contemplating both the options and the paradox.”—Tom Griffin, Bookforum

“Armantrout’s poetry has always been turned to the present moment. Its formal lineage is from William Carlos Williams and the Objectivists, with their enjambments of modern experience. … Poetically, Armantrout has always aimed at knowing life by isolating it from narrative. Written under a diagnosis of cancer (“’I just called / to fill you in’”), Versed is a major and moving addition to a life’s work in many-angled reflection.”—Jeremy Noel-Tod, Times Literary Supplement

Publishers Weekly

In recent years, Armantrout's reputation has soared-she began in the '70s as an obscure, early practitioner of language poetry, and now her poems regularly appear in the New Yorker. Her new book comprises two sequences-"Versed" and "Dark Matter"-of loosely interlinked poems dealing with the prolific poet's usual subjects (the body, contemporary society, violence) as well as more personal explorations of illness and mortality, all relayed in Armantrout's concentrated, crystalline voice, with a predilection for skipping some steps along the way to sense. The first sequence, peppered with pop culture references and quoted speech, features silly yet surprisingly serious poems on topics like "'[b]reaking/ Anna Nicole news// as she buries/ her son.' " In the playful "Scumble," the poet speculates as to "What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words/ such as... 'extrapolate?' " The second section, "Dark Matter," is evasively intimate and occasionally, albeit characteristically, bleak, as Armantrout (Next Life) contemplates her own struggle with cancer "with a shocked smile,/ while an undiscovered tumor/squats on her kidney." In what may be moments of intense, sardonic honesty-"Chuck and I are pleased/ to have found a spot/where my ashes can be scattered"-the poet poses metaphysical questions with open endings: jarring moments in which the stakes are suddenly, impossibly high. (Feb.)

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Library Journal

Learning about the life of Venture Smith (1729-1805) gives readers insight into the all-too-often faceless world of American slaves and their pursuit of freedom. Smith bore witness to African and then American enslavement in New England, the tumultuous world of the American Revolution, and eventually freedom though self-emancipation. Driven by hard work and determination in the face of unremitting adversity, he persevered to become a prime example of the self-made man symbolic of American history. Smith's story was recorded by schoolteacher Elisha Niles, and a complete facsimile of that version is included in this slim but richly illustrated volume. Saint (president, Beecher House Ctr. for the Study of Equal Rights) and Krimsky (coauthor, Hold the Press: The Inside Story on Newspapers) admirably weave together their compelling narrative with recently uncovered clues about Smith's life in an effort to explicate Smith's remarkable and courageous story. The authors maintain that while the narrative of Olaudah Equiano's life contains much more detail, Smith's story gives readers a picture of a man who "most valued simplicity, frugality, and prudence." Highly recommended; this should become required reading in courses on early American history.
—Brian Odom

Product Details

Wesleyan University Press
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Wesleyan Poetry Series
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Read an Excerpt


By Rae Armantrout

Wesleyan University Press

Copyright © 2009 Rae Armantrout
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8195-7091-8

Chapter One

Results 1 Click here to vote on who's ripe for a makeover or takeover in this series pilot. Votes are registered at the server and sent back as results.

2 Click here to transform oxidation into digestion. From this point on, it's a lattice of ends disguised as means: the strangler fig, the anteater.

3 I've developed the ability to revise what I'm waiting for so that letter becomes dinner gradually while the contrapuntal nodding of the Chinese elm leaves redistributes ennui Versed The self-monitoring function of each cell "writ large," personified - a person. * * * The "Issues of the Day" are mulled steadily by surrogates. * * * Metaphor forms a crust beneath which the crevasse of each experience. * * * Traversed by robotic surveyors. * * * Mother yells, "Good job!" when he drops the stick, "Good job!" when he walks in her direction Fetch 1 Was it a flaming mouse that burned Mares' house down or was it just the wind? On Tuesday Mares and his nephew stood by the original version. Is this plausible? Fire Chief Chavez said Tuesday that he thought so.

2 Let's see your itty- bitten specificity fetish, your mom's phantasmic what's-it held conspicuously under threat. Day hoists its mesh of near approximations, (its bright skein of pores.) Eves fetch thrown shadows Address The way rex interest in their imaginary kiss is secretly addressed to you. * * * Without intention prongs of ivy mount the posts supporting the freeway. It would be possible to say each leaf circumscribes hope or that each leaf, fastidiously coming to one point, suggests a fear of the unknown. * * * These glossy, laced-up, high-heel boots (each leaf) addressed to you Vehicles Pairing matched fragments, then pausing - archly? - Mozart creates a universe out Of pleasantries. "How is everything for you today?" the hostess at the front desk asks. * * * If that (head-on car-crash) had happened, we say, all this would not have been - like "having been" were a lasting thing: the small tree on the highway meridian having been lit up for a moment now by sun breaking through cloud * * * Look how we "attempted to express ourselves." Every one of these words is wrong. It wasn't us. Or we made no real attempt. Or there is no discernible difference between self and expression. * * * What was meant by "streamlining" we might guess, but what was meant by streamlining as value added to this already bulky, even bulbous, baby-pink conveyance, we can only ask A Resemblance As a word is mostly connotation, matter is mostly aura? Halo? (The same loneliness that separates me from what I call "the world.") * * * Quiet, ragged skirt of dust encircling a ceramic gourd. * * * Look-alikes. "Are you happy now?" * * * Would I like a vicarious happiness? Yes! Though I suspect yours of being defective, forced Outer Dolls as celebrities (Barbie); celebrities as dolls. I'm the one who can't know if the scraggly old woman putting a gallon of vodka in her shopping cart feels guilty, defiant, or even glamorous as she does so. She may imagine herself as an actress playing an alcoholic in a film. Removal activates glamour? To see yourself as if from the outside - though not as others see you. Carried by light, images remain while sensation is so evanescent as to be always beyond belief. The outer world means State Farm Donuts Tae Kwando? Thoughts as spent fuel rods. Preceded and followed by statuesque shadows of cacti on a lawn. Today could be described as a retired man humming tunelessly to himself. When I ask what you're thinking, you say "about explaining to children the best way to build a Maypole." Relations "Head" and "Bring." I remember the words.

"Bobble" and "Bauble,"

"Rosy" and "Lonely"

set off now. What will you little chimes bring me? Time flows because no set of proofs can be complete. Bring me the friendship between solving and dissolving. Babel "Let us go down and confuse their language so we may distinguish the people from our thoughts." * * * Can it be true that the baby is afraid his wish to gobble us up has been realized already? * * * Hard to say since we've thrown our voice into the future and the past Operations This child fights cancer with the help of her celebrity fan club. says, "Now I know how hard it is to be a movie star." * * * "Hey, my avatar's not working!" * * * This small hawk on a wire above tangled flowers. * * * Speech, too, was thought to be inhabited by a god. Then hunger invented light. Help Creased, globular, shiny, baby pumpkins on stalks upright in a vase. Let amorphous restlessness condense to objects like these again. * * * A space "inside" can't bear to be un- interrupted. I mark it: "I" "I" "I" * * * If this were a stutter of brittle reeds, an evening glint fingering each "at a time" might help Name Calling Objects are silly. Lonesome as the word "Ow!" is. * * * Could we grant them a quorum - dense, with the shiny glossolalia of the leaves, the resilience of open-ended questions? * * * Bud-nipped. What the pudendum attempts to pinch off, tries repeatedly. What comes to be called pleasure Pleasure A sleight-of-hand equilibrium being produced as bees pass one another, a ticklish rumble shuttling between blooms. I'd like to think I'm one. no, all of them. * * * This sense of my senses being mine is what passes life to life? How distinguish one light from the next? Only distinctions can matter. (Canned matter.) * * * Just made up of tuning fork ferns, blackbird pipe-lettes: little golden self-measuring extents Guess 1 The jacaranda, for instance, is beautiful but not serious. That much I can guess. And that the view is softened by curtains. That the present moment is an exception, is the queen bee a hive serves, or else an orphan. 2 So the jacatanda is foreign and extravagant. It gestures in the distance. Between there and here you ask. what game we should play next week. So we'll be alive next week, continuing what you may or may not mean to be an impossible flirtation Locality 1 "Is it nummy? Yeah, huh?" 2 Songs as empathy evacuation engines. It's not that I wish to pledge slavish devotion as the singer seems to do; it's not that I want to be the object of such attention - but I'll listen to this song again and again.

3 Where you put them - did you, for instance, those window bars reflected in sun glasses upside down between remotest

4 Wires dip obligingly between blanched poles, slightly askew. Any statement I issue, if particular enough, will prove I was here Wannabe Impossibly teetering is one wax to remain. Half contemptuous, half ravished by vampire wannabes maybe. * * * A two-lane highway between ghost-towns - one of the cliches you love the memory, not of events but of continuity itself. * * * Who are you anyway? Stretch Lime green against dark foliage, the Emerald Oil sign gleams alone. Stars slingshot round the center at millions of miles per. In rest home beds, patients hang on as if to love. Moment to moment's stretched plausibility. (Body beneath a wooden plank, she's sucking her grandmother's cock.) Left Behind 1 To reinvent anomalous figments. Twisted and white, limbs strike poses. One ballerina after another on point down the highway meridian - eucalyptus committed to attitudes just so but still awash in their own equivocal leaf shadow. I pass as if to pass were to think better of something.

2 Dreams unspool contents with an ersatz tongue-in-cheek familiarity, conspicuously flimsy: a singer intoning "Venice Boulevard" on a store sound system late last night, a crooner placing us perhaps among flight students - reminiscing, "when you're land-ing on Highway Fi-ive" Amplication Some think in the first days Hunger and Lust arose separately and then paired up by chance having only self-love in common - and what is that? Still, what a pair they've been! * * * Some think we can achieve escape velocity if only we can make our thoughts bounce harder and harder off the near walls - the limits - of what is known, what is trite about these characters. * * * We have it on good authority that we're dying to express this one thousand times more or less precisely, dying to practice Bonding On the television in an empty pharmacy, the contestant whose guess is closest to retail squeals. * * * A want, conceived as illusory (rhetorical), is said to undelie the real, underwrite matter. * * * A man tells a camera he prefers "lady-boys" because they can't fake orgasm. * * * In the updraft, the particulate glitz is beside itself. * * * Check-plus! I wait for my thought to reappear. (I trust recognitions.) * * * Pathos of strangers' headlights tracing the curve at dusk is inexplicable Through 1 The intention come previously. Little apron leaves. what are you covering up, plump and forgotten on a woody stalk? Will itself, unoccupied, unowned

2 These dark tunnels into and through the loving look. Reaching both and neither always makes me hot. "Did you have fun playing with trains, Phantom Stallion, Rainbow Frog?" Scumble What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as "scumble," "pinky," or "extrapolate?" What if I maneuvered conversation in the hope that others would pronounce these words? Perhaps the excitement would come front the way the other person touched them lightly and carelessly with his tongue. What if "of" were such a hot button? "Scumble of bushes." What if there were a hidden pleasure in calling one thing by another's name? Worth While A rod: a list, a mop-top palm cut-out against sunset, chocolate pastries in the shape of pyramids, an elderly, bent figure beneath a feathered Stetson. * * * Terri fears she may he risking her job as an afterlife consultant. Melinda is comforted by led when she twists her ankle trying to evade an angry ghost. Unanswered questions change things between Booth and Bone. * * * A string of raindrops dangling from an iron bar reveals opportunities for clarity. At the breakfast table, Mary's dead parents become impatient when she counts the wad of small denomination bills they presented her with on her birthday. Dilation Pupils fixed on the "It Girl's" production of fame's emptiness. A surface comprised of flicker and twinge. Lapsing circles stripe the pool's vacant blue as I might what?

They are going off in this long instance Inscription God as the lace-making machine, the hypnotized spider. Why shouldn't an idée fixe be infinite? Blithering symmetrics. More of you are coming. * * * "I think our incentives are sexy and edgy." * * * As if you could become another person by setting off an automatic cascade of responses in his/her body. As if you could escape by following the path you carved there to its prescribed end. * * * Poems addressed to their own dead letters - campy femme-fatales. Poems addressed to their end-times' desiccation. Entropy increases as I recall less and less of the number string. Shackle-crackle of strings breaking - that radiation hiss evening things out. * * * Look - I'm cooperating! I can pull myself apart and still speak Either Side Proscenium of nearly identical mountain ridges, arched out and downward, one "after" another, to the valley floor: curtains tied back, a gesture * * * Skin falling into pleats around my lower jaw as my head bends forward * * * Glassy, copper inlets leading "off" into mist between pairs, sets of small, long-treed islands make gorgeous - because empty? - promises The short moan - or hum? - you exhale as you drift toward sleep is an island I can't visit Equals 1 As if, after all, the thing that comes to mind squared times inertia equaled the "real."

2 One lizard jammed headfirst down the throat of a second. New Genres 1 A witness claims to have seen a spirit. From this premise, a ragged band sets out, tramping through all old house in the dark, joking or bickering, carrying equipment meant to measure "fluctuations." The existence of the spirit should remain an open - so foreclosed - question.

2 Pockets of self-reference arise. As if I could read the mind of the creator, I already see that the father is the stalker he pursues and, eventually, neutralizes Presto "Breaking Anna Nicole news as she buries her soil." * * * "What do you want to be?" Skeleton suits and Superman outfits - inappropriate touching on drugstore racks. * * * Presto! Pairs of flies re-tie the old knot mid-air. * * * Blonde wigs and wizard caps. "I want to go back!" Invisible knot. I want to be that!


Excerpted from VERSED by Rae Armantrout Copyright © 2009 by Rae Armantrout. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

New York Times
Praise for Next Life: "Poetry that conveys the invention, the wit and the force of a mind that contests all assumptions."

Meet the Author

RAE ARMANTROUT is a professor of writing and literature at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of ten books of poetry.

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Versed 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
SAHARATEA More than 1 year ago
National Book Award Finalist 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry Versed by Rae Armantrout made me feel pretty ignorant (more than usual anyway!). I know that her work has always been highly respected, but when I first picked it up, I just didn't get it. A few phrases, here and there, would resonate, but then the lines would go off the track I imagined they were on. I'm fine with stream-of-consciousness writing, but that doesn't describe it either. Quite simply, I was lost. I put the collection down to return to another time. In the meantime, The New Yorker had an article about Armantrout's winning the Pulitzer Prize for this collection, and explained in length not just her biography but her status as a Language poet. Language poets were once a cultural rebellion against Post- Modern poets, but have now become more mainstream, and of them, she's known as the best. The essay explained how her poems are often cryptic with double meanings and turns that are meant to wake up the reader, to shock them out of numb reality. With this in mind, I went back and reread each piece. I confess that most are still over my head, I can't make the connections. But a few really did give me pause. And I think that is how she should be read: not in a hurry to finish but to slowly unravel. From Outer: "I'm the one who can't know if the scraggly old woman putting a gallon of vodka in her shopping cart feels guilty, defiant, or even glamorous as she does so. She may imagine herself as an actress playing an alcoholic in a film. Removal activates glamour? To see yourself as if from the outside - though not as others see you." All in all, trying to figure out the meanings was fascinating, like the first few games of Sudoku. But after awhile, just as Sudoku gets more difficult, this felt like more work than I was willing to invest. I just don't have that in me, to understand what these mean. I am too simple for these complexities. However, someone with a stronger background in poetry, especially Language poetry, would likely enjoy this special collection.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago